Nations around the globe tailor their space exploration missions to reflect wider national interests, with France targeting scientific goals; Russia looking to further extend their global predominance; and China hoping to displace America as technological leader.
NASA’s Artemis project follows suit; its inaugural launch, set for 2024, will send an uncrewed Orion capsule past the Moon into lunar orbit.
NASA last landed astronauts on the moon over 50 years ago; but this week Artemis will make another attempt. However, human space exploration today differs greatly from that seen then; efficiency, costs and motivation of such missions have all come under close examination since then; NPR’s All Things Considered host Lori Garver spoke with Duke University historian who noted robots could do this job more efficiently, affordably and safely than humans could.
Artemis I is an uncrewed unmanned space mission launched on Tuesday that seeks to demonstrate that Orion, NASA’s lunar spacecraft for future travels, can perform effectively in outer space’s harsh conditions. The $4.1 billion test will put Orion to its limits with a 25-day journey resembling astronaut experience on lunar journeys while testing life support systems and shuttle interfaces of Orion spacecraft. Orion will also be orbited by Gateway space station which serves as a potential platform for future manned trips to Moon or beyond.
Orion will undergo its next major milestone with an uncrewed mission in 2024 – this time with crew aboard for an uncrewed test flight spanning 280,000 miles; farther than any craft built for humans has ever traveled before. This test flight will help NASA assess whether Orion and its rocket are prepared for Artemis II, an eventual mission that would land astronauts on the lunar surface.
NASA will use this mission as an opportunity to test skip entry technology, which uses Earth’s atmosphere as a partial aerobrake, saving fuel and making landings more precise. Scientists hope one day this technique could be implemented on crewed missions that take humans all the way to Mars; long-term goal being creating permanent bases on either lunar orbit or surface so astronauts can remain there for weeks or months at a time instead of just days or so at a time.
Orion, NASA’s spacecraft that will transport astronauts to both Mars and the Moon, features a crew module for astronauts to live in, as well as propulsion and power systems in its service module, launch abort system, heat shield, heat absorption material Avcoat blocks which burn off during reentry and transport away any of its heat generated during supersonic speed, heat shield protection from the Apollo spacecraft and launch abort system as well as launch abort system protection from launch abort system and launch abort system protection from hot temperatures during reentry as did Apollo before them.
As Orion approaches lunar orbit, its engines will fire to perform reversible maneuvers that place it on a re-entry trajectory of about 80 miles (130 kilometers) away from its surface. Orion also features an onboard propulsion system made up of 33 engines; one main engine (NASA-provided Orbital Maneuvering System engine), eight auxiliary engines, and 24 reaction control thrusters – for optimal maneuvering capabilities during entry to lunar orbit.
On this mission, astronauts will use both engines and solar arrays to provide electrical power, testing out various avionic systems used for flying the spacecraft such as flight computers. One key technology on board the spacecraft will be an onboard data network called Time-Triggered Gigabit Ethernet which allows NASA engineers to prioritize different types of information as it travels through it; for instance time-critical information related to navigation or life support will receive priority bandwidth and will arrive promptly at its intended recipient.
Once Orion completes its mission, it will engage a series of engine burns to enter a near retrograde lunar orbit (NRHO), before passing by the Moon and returning to Earth via 11 parachutes that will slow its velocity down to 17mph for safe landing in the Pacific Ocean.
As is true of all NASA spacecraft, Orion’s design and assembly has been an immense undertaking. Its primary structure was assembled at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans while hundreds of contractors contributed parts and components that will eventually be assembled and outfitted by teams at Kennedy Space Center.
Orion, NASA’s spacecraft designed to transport people between Earth and the moon, must withstand launch and reentry safely. To accomplish this task, its design features such as skip-entry will help it maneuver more easily through Earth’s upper layer of atmosphere before reentering at lower speed and less drag, NASA says. Furthermore, Orion comes equipped with an innovative heat shield which protects crew members against debris as well as atmospheric temperatures that would otherwise damage its interior structure during atmospheric reentry temperatures that might harm its interior structure from atmospheric re-entry temperatures that would otherwise damage its interior – something other spacecraft are incapable of doing.
Orion crew capsule has three seats, including a command seat occupied by a full-size test dummy in an orange flight suit, outfitted with sensors to measure vibrations and acceleration as well as cosmic radiation exposure. Two additional “mannequins,” Helga and Zohar – featuring heads with female torsos but no limbs – will monitor how female bodies respond during spaceflight.
After Orion and lunar modules dock, astronauts will use a tunnel to move from the Command Module to Lunar Module for exploration purposes, giving scientists more time than during Apollo 17 when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Harrison Schmitt only spent a few hours exploring.
Before being sent into space, Orion must pass several stringent tests. Chief among these is avionics qualification flight – during this test electrical signals generated by each system must be sent and received correctly; followed by acoustic qualification where the spacecraft is placed inside a reverberating chamber to simulate launch noise; finally qualification and acceptance testing ensures it meets mission requirements.
As part of its cargo for Orion and Mannequin Experiment-2 (ME2) mission, NASA will pack 10 shoebox-size satellites for deep space research: five will conduct acoustic science while five others conduct radio communications and power experiments. Furthermore, NASA plans on testing out a demonstration solar sail.
Orion spacecraft, on an uncrewed flight through space called Artemis, has passed three landing sites from three of six Apollo lunar missions since 1969. This test flight aimed at helping NASA optimize their Space Launch System rocket for returning astronauts back to the moon by 2025 is sending back selfies as well as data about its environment back to Earth – so far exceeding expectations, although not yet ready for astronauts; instead three manikins equipped with sensors are aboard as proxies to see whether its environment is suitable.
Apollo missions were an extraordinary success, yet not without risk. Three members of the first six crew died when their capsule ran out of oxygen during launch in 1967; remaining crew members managed to safely land it and NASA went on to successfully complete five more lunar missions including its last one with astronauts walking on its surface.
Up until recently, Apollo landing sites could only be seen through high resolution images from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite. But on Wednesday, NASA issued a video commemorating 50 years since Apollo 11’s landing and showed its area still looking exactly the same today as it did then.
Fra Mauro is perhaps the most iconic lunar landing site, and can easily be identified from orbit with high-resolution images. Its main feature is its walled plain of Fra Mauro surrounded by Bonpland to the south and Parry to the north; you may also spot Molke just south of this landing area. This location should be best seen 8 to 10 days post new Moon and 6-8 days post full Moon for optimal viewing conditions.
Nasa’s Moon Program is one of its largest ever undertaken and seeks to reestablish human presence on the Moon for the first time since 1972. The program involves various components like Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, Lunar Gateway station and commercial Human Landing Systems – with each element functioning independently from each other.