West News Wire: After a three-week test flight that includes a close flyby of the Moon and a trip further into space than any other inhabited spacecraft, NASA’s Orion capsule is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

At 9:39 a.m. local time on Sunday, the capsule is anticipated to splash down off the Mexican island of Guadalupe at 17:39 GMT.

NASA’s Artemis program, which intends to return people to the Moon and help them get ready for a future trip to Mars, was launched with the launch of Orion last month, which carried a mannequin crew to represent a real crew.

According to NASA, Orion’s flight has been going pretty well thus far.

In late November, the capsule reached its farthest point in space, venturing 432,210km (268,563 miles) from Earth while midway through its 25-day mission. That is nearly 32,187km (20,000 miles) beyond the record distance set by the crew of Apollo 13 in 1970, which aborted its lunar landing and returned to Earth after a nearly catastrophic mechanical failure.

On Monday, Orion sailed within 130km (80 miles) of the lunar surface, achieving the closest approach to the Moon for a spacecraft built to carry humans since Apollo 17 flew half a century ago.

But, it is only in the final minutes of Orion’s voyage on Sunday that the true challenge comes seeing if the capsule’s heat shield, the biggest ever built, actually holds up.

The spacecraft which is expected to hurtle into the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 40,000kmph (25,000mph) will have to withstand a temperature of 2,800 degrees Celsius (5,072 degrees Fahrenheit) about half that of the surface of the sun.

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The first test of the capsule was carried out in 2014 but then the capsule stayed in Earth’s orbit, so it came back into the atmosphere at a slower speed of about 32,187kmph.

Mike Sarafin, Artemis’s mission manager, said Orion’s heat shield was “a safety-critical piece of equipment”.

“It is designed to protect the spacecraft and the passengers, the astronauts on board. So the heat shield needs to work,” he said.

NASA has dispatched a US navy ship, the USS Portland, as well as helicopters and inflatable boats to recover the Orion capsule.

Once it is in the water, NASA will let Orion float for two hours a lot longer than if astronauts were inside so as to collect data that is crucial for future missions.

Only 12 people all of them white men have set foot on the Moon. They did this during the Apollo missions, the last of which was in 1972.

Artemis is scheduled to send a woman and a person of colour to the Moon for the first time.

NASA’s goal is to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon through a base on its surface and a space station circling around it.

Having people learn to live on the Moon should help engineers develop technologies for a years-long trip to Mars, maybe in the late 2030s.

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