Desk Report : The American space agency Nasa has brought home its next-generation astronaut ship after a near-26-day mission to orbit the Moon.
The Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and a descent that was further slowed by parachutes.
Because this was a test, there were no people aboard this time, but that will change for the next flight.
Nasa is planning ever more complex missions with Orion.
These will likely start in late 2024 and include, in 2025 or 2026, an attempt to put humans back on the lunar surface.
This was last achieved exactly 50 years ago to the day by the crew of Apollo 17. The agency’s new project is called Artemis, who in Greek mythology was the sister of Apollo.
Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson said he was overwhelmed to see the splashdown.
“It’s historic because we are now going back into space, into deep space, with a new generation,” he added.
“We are adventurers, we are explorers, we always have a frontier; and that frontier is now to continue exploring the heavens.”
Nasa had described the Sunday return of Orion to Earth as its “priority one” objective.
Vehicles coming back from lunar distances do so at very high speed – some 40,000km/h (25,000mph) at initial contact with the atmosphere.
A robust heatshield is required to prevent the ship from tearing itself apart as it pushes up against the air and temperatures reach close to 3,000C.
The protective layer on the underside of Orion is a new design from previous craft, and Nasa had to be sure it was effective before risking the lives of astronauts on future missions.
The spectacular sight of the capsule’s 11 parachutes deploying and inflating in sequence was clear indication that the heatshield had done its job.
But engineers won’t pass judgement until they’ve inspected it.
After the capsule’s drop into the ocean, not far from Mexico’s Guadalupe Island, recovery teams moved in to gather imagery that can be fed into the post-flight analysis.