Nasa’s Artemins I Orion spacecraft, which was launched on November 16, has left lunar orbit to head back to Earth on Thursday. The spacecraft has been in distant retrograde around the Moon since November 25.
Meanwhile, NASA has been putting the vehicle’s various systems through their paces as the US space agency considers it successful, resulting in additional test objectives.
The capsule is expected to splash down at sea on December 11.
If the mission succeeds, a crewed Artemis II flight around the moon and back could come as early as 2024, followed within a few years by the program’s first lunar landing of astronauts, one of them a woman, with Artemis III. Sending astronauts to Mars is expected to take at least another decade and a half to achieve, reported the news agency Reuters.
A top objective is to test the durability of Orion’s heat shield as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles (39,400 km) per hour, comparatively faster than re-entries from the space station.
The spacecraft also is set to release 10 miniaturized science satellites that will be deployed to trace the contours of ice deposits on the moon’s south pole, where Artemis seeks to eventually land astronauts.
The three-week Artemis I mission involves a 25-day Orion flight bringing the capsule to within the lunar surface’s 97 km before flying about 64,400 km beyond the moon and looping back to Earth.