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When does the NASA Artemis I Orion spacecraft return to Earth?

NASA’s Artemis 1 mission will conduct a fly-by of the moon on Monday before continuing its journey back home.

NASA to broadcast the return of Artemis I to Earth

Last week NASA’s Orion spacecraft left its distant retrograde orbit and began its return journey home to Earth. The Artemis I spacecraft was launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday 16 November 2022, to begin a 25-day lunar mission.

The main objective of the mission is to test the Orion spacecraft with a view to conducting further moon missions “to reestablish a human presence on the Moon and demonstrate technologies and business approaches needed for future scientific studies” according to NASA.

The Artemis I mission management team has given the go-ahead for Orion to depart from its elliptical lunar orbit. Orion completed one final pass of the moon last week, before performing a 1:45 minute burn to depart its orbit - the manoeuvre was streamed live on NASA’s Youtube channel.

Having completed the key parts of the mission Orion is now heading back toward Earth. The module is expected to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday 11 December, having covered over 1.3 miIlion miles during its journey.

Future moon missions

One of the key aims of Artemis 1 was to see how the Lockheed Martin-designed protective heat shield performed on the uncrewed Orion module during atmospheric re-entry to Earth when it must withstand temperatures of 2,760 °C (5,000 °F) while travelling at 24,500 mph (Mach 32).

One of the reasons why NASA are keen to test the heat shield is that Orion’s return won’t be like a typical re-entry. The module will be travelling 7,700 mph faster, and will register temperatures 73% hotter (5,000 °F versus 3,000 °F) than a spacecraft returning from low Earth orbit (LEO).

Re-entry is where the heat shield and TPS on the crew module really have to do their job,” explained Joe Bomba, Lockheed Martin senior staff aeronautical engineer.

“Spaceflight missions are really all about energy management - we design the systems required to make those energy transfer processes that are necessary to meet mission objectives possible and efficient, but we also design the vehicle in such a way that, from structures, to subsystem design, to the concept of operations, we minimize or mitigate the environments that are induced from those energy transfer processes.”

When the spacecraft returns to earth on Sunday, 11 December the agency will provide live coverage of the mission’s finale. NASA’s broadcast will be available to view on NASA Television, the agency’s website, and the NASA app and will host several briefings to discuss the mission’s achievements.