Artemis 1 Orion Prepares to Return to Earth After Impressive Test

The uncrewed Orion launched by Artemis 1 on November 30, 2022, is now on its way back to Earth. On December 5, it performed a 207-second engine burn that took it out of lunar orbit. Flight controllers expect the Orion spacecraft to return to Earth on December 11.

The Orion was just 128 kilometers (79 miles) above the lunar surface when it made the engine burn. Mission controllers say the entire mission has performed very well, starting with its launch on the SLS rocket.

“Performance [of the SLS rocket] was off by less than 0.3 percent in all cases across the board,” Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said in a NASA statement on the launch of Artemis-1.

Orion did experience a few glitches such as a communications issue and an anomaly in the power system. The communications glitch turned out to be a hardware issue with a Deep Space Network station in Goldstone, California. The issue caused a 4.5-hour drop in communications with Orion.

A power conditioning distribution network went down on the Orion spacecraft on December 4, temporarily cutting off power to four devices connected to the propulsion and heating subsystems.

“We talked through that today, as a mission management team, and the spacecraft is fine. There’s plenty of redundancy on the vehicle,” Sarafin said in a summary of Orion’s 19th day in flight.

The Callisto voice-activated digital assistant system is one upgrade that Orion has over the Apollo missions, which landed astronauts on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Lockheed Martin and Cisco Systems worked with Amazon to create the derivative of the Alexa system for Orion. The system is customized to produce real-time data, improved connectivity, and mission-specific feedback for the astronauts who will fly on board the Orion spacecraft.

Debbie Korth, Orion Program deputy manager at JSC, says tests of Callisto have gone very well. “I got to witness several of the sessions – very, very interactive, very engaging, in terms of being able to talk to the spacecraft, turn lights on and off, write notes or play music, ask questions. It’s just a really very good engagement opportunity and I think it has some potential for how we would use that further.”

Life support was one system that didn’t get a full shakedown on this flight. This mission only tested the nitrogen delivery system. European aerospace contractor Airbus says the system won’t be fully activated until Artemis makes its first crewed flight, which is expected to happen as early as 2024.

Mission planners still expect to get a few more tests in during Orion’s cruise back toward Earth. They plan to meet on December 8 to determine a good spot in the Pacific Ocean for Orion to come down. The decision will largely be based on the weather forecast for December 11.