On December 11th, at 09:40 a.m. PST (12:40 p.m. EST), NASA’s Artemis I mission splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California. The return of the uncrewed Orion spacecraft marks the end of the Artemis Program’s inaugural mission, which launched on November 16th and validated the spacecraft and its heavy launch vehicle – the Space Launch System (SLS). During its 25.5-day circumlunar flight, the Orion spacecraft traveled more than 2.25 million km (1.4 million mi) and flew beyond the Moon’s orbit, establishing a new distance record.Continue reading “Orion Splashes Down in the Pacific Ocean, Completing the Artemis I Mission”
Artemis I is now on day seventeen of its mission, having just completed its distant retrograde orbit burn. This maneuver has placed the uncrewed Orion spacecraft (loaded with mannequins and sensors) on its way back to Earth. In honor of this historic mission that has traveled farther than any spacecraft in history, NASA has released a second supercut video of footage from the mission. The 1-minute, 36-second video includes highlights from the maiden launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft making its circumlunar flight and looking back at the Earth-Moon system.Continue reading “NASA Releases Another Supercut of the Artemis I Mission, Showing the Launch and Flight Past the Moon”
The Orion spacecraft made its first close flyby of the Moon on Monday, November 21, coming as close as 81 statute miles (130 km) from the lunar surface. As the Artemis 1 mission’s uncrewed spacecraft flew past the far side of the Moon, Orion’s orbital maneuvering system engine fired for 2 minutes and 30 seconds to successfully put the capsule into the desired orbit for the mission, called a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon.
“This burn is setting Orion up to orbit the Moon, and is largest propulsive event so far, as Artemis is hunting the Moon,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis Mission Manager at a briefing on Monday.Continue reading “Artemis I has Completed its First Flyby of the Moon”
An interesting photo-op took place at Launch Complex 39 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week. On April 6th, two different rockets were photographed occupying neighboring launch pads – LC 39A and 39B. The former was occupied by the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule (visible in the foreground) that launched the first all-private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 8th – the Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1).
The latter was occupied by the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion Spacecraft that will be used to conduct the inaugural launch of the Artemis Program (Artemis I) this summer (seen in the background). This is the first time two different types of rockets and spacecraft occupied LC 39’s sister pads simultaneously. This will become the norm in the future as the KSC continues to grow and becomes a multi-user spaceport that launches government and commercial rockets.
Further Reading: NASA
The Space Launch System (SLS) has just one more hurdle to clear before this summer’s historic launch. This is known as the Wet Dress Rehearsal, where the fully-stacked SLS and Orion spacecraft will conduct a series of operations at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This test follows the arrival of the SLS to Launch Complex 39B after making its big rollout on March 17th from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VLB).
The Wet Dress Rehearsal will run from Friday, April 1st, through Sunday, April 3rd, and will see the Artemis I launch team load propellant into the rocket’s tanks, conduct a full launch countdown, demonstrate the ability to recycle the countdown clock, and also drain propellants to give them an opportunity to practice the timelines and procedures they will use for launch. The weekend-long event will be live-streamed via the Kennedy Newsroom YouTube channel.Continue reading “NASA Will be Testing SLS Over the Weekend”
Since December of 2017, NASA has been working towards the goal of sending “the next man and first woman” to the Moon by 2024, which will be the first crewed lunar mission since the Apollo Program. As part of this mission, known as Project Artemis, NASA has been developing both the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, which will allow the astronauts to make the journey.
Originally, it was hoped that the first uncrewed flight of the SLS and Orion (Artemis I) would take place later this year. But according to recent statements by Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, this inaugural launch will most likely take place “mid to late” in 2021. This is the latest in a series of delays for the high-profile project, which has been making impressive progress nevertheless.Continue reading “The First Artemis Launch has Been Delayed Until Mid-to-Late 2021”
On December 11th, 2017, President Trump issued Space Policy Directive-1, a change in national space policy which tasked NASA with the creation of an innovative and sustainable program of exploration that would send astronauts back to the Moon. This was followed on March 26th, 2019, with President Trump directing NASA to land the first astronauts since the Apollo era on the lunar South Pole by 2024.
Named Project Artemis, after twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology, this project has expedited efforts to get NASA back to the Moon. However, with so much focus dedicated to getting back to the Moon, there are concerns that other projects being neglected – like the development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a central part of creating a sustained human presence on the Moon and going on to Mars.Continue reading “Is NASA Sacrificing Sending Astronauts to Mars in Order to Get to the Moon Sooner?”
The Moon’s going to have more human visitors in the year 2024. NASA has announced that their mission to the Moon, which is named Artemis after the Greek goddess of hunting, has been advanced by four years, from 2028 to 2024. But there’s a catch: they need more dough to do it. $1.6 billion more.Continue reading “NASA’s 2024 Moon Mission is called Artemis, and Will Need an Additional $1.6 Billion in Funding”
In their pursuit of returning astronauts to the Moon, and sending crewed missions to Mars, NASA has contracted with a number of aerospace companies to develop all the infrastructure it will need. In addition to the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft – which will fly the astronauts into space and see them safety to their destinations – they have teamed up with Lockheed Martin and other contractors to develop the Deep Space Gateway.
This orbiting lunar habitat will not only facilitate missions to and from the Moon and Mars, it will also allow human beings to live and work in space like never before. On Thursday, August 16th, Lockheed Martin provided a first glimpse of what one the of habitats aboard the Deep Space Gateway would look like. It all took place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where attendees were given a tour of the habitat prototype.
At it’s core, the habitat uses the Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), a refurbished module designed by the Italian Space Agency that dates back to the Space Shuttle era. Like all MPLMs, the Donatello is a pressurized module that was intended to carry equipment, experiments and supplies to and from the International Space Station aboard the Space Shuttle.
While the Donatello was never sent into space, Lockheed Martin has re-purposed it to create their prototype habitat. Measuring 6.7 meters (22 feet) long and 4.57 meters (15 feet) wide, the pressurized capsule is designed to house astronauts for a period of 30 to 60 days. According to Bill Pratt, the program’s manager, it contains racks for science, life support systems, sleep stations, exercise machines, and robotic workstations.
The team also relied on “mixed-reality prototyping” to create the prototype habitat, a process where virtual and augmented reality are used to solve engineering issues in the early design phase. As Pratt explained in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, their design makes optimal use of limited space, and also seeks to reuse already-build components:
“You think of it as an RV in deep space. When you’re in an RV, your table becomes your bed and things are always moving around, so you have to be really efficient with the space. That’s a lot of what we are testing here… We want to get to the moon and to Mars as quickly as possible, and we feel like we actually have a lot of stuff that we can use to do that.”
This habitat is one of several components that will eventually go into creating the Deep Space Gateway. These will include the habitat, an airlock, a propulsion module, a docking port and a power bus, which together would weigh 68 metric tonnes (75 US tons). This makes it considerably smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs in at a hefty 408 metric tonnes (450 US tons).
Moreover, the DSG is one of several components that will be used to return astronauts to the Moon and to Mars. As noted, these include the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful launch vehicle since the Saturn V (the rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which will house the crew.
However, for their planned missions to Mars, NASA is also looking to develop the Deep Space Transport and the Mars Base Camp and Lander. The former calls for a reusable vehicle that would rely on a combination of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and chemical propulsion to transport crews to and from the Gateway, whereas the latter would orbit Mars and provide the means to land on and return from the surface.
All told, NASA has awarded a combined $65 million to six contractors – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems, Orbital ATK, NanoRacks and Bigelow Aerospace – to build the habitat prototype by the end of the year. The agency will then review the proposals to determine which systems and interfaces will be incorporated into the design of the Deep Space Gateway.
In the meantime, development of the Orion spacecraft continues at the Kennedy Space Center, which recently had its heat shields attached. Next month, the European Space Agency (ESA) will also be delivering the European Service Module to the Kennedy Space Center, which will be integrated with the Orion crew module and will provide it with the electricity, propulsion, thermal control, air and water it will need to sustain a crew in space.
Once this is complete, NASA will begin the process of integrating the spacecraft with the SLS. NASA hopes to conduct the first uncrewed mission using the Orion spacecraft by 2020, in what is known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), which will involve a crew performing a lunar flyby test and returning to Earth, is expected to take place by mid-2022.
Development on the the Deep Space Transport and the Mars Base Camp and Lander is also expected to continue. Whereas the Gateway is part of the first phase of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” plan – the “Earth Reliant” phase, which involves exploration near the Moon using current technologies – these components will be part of Phase II, which is on developing long-duration capabilities beyond the Moon.
If all goes according to plan, and depending on the future budget environment, NASA still hopes to mount a crewed mission to Mars by the 2030s.
Further Reading: Orlando Sentinel
Yes, she’s a little worse for wear, isn’t she? But then again, that’s what atmospheric re-entry and 2200 °Celsius (4000 °Fahrenheit) worth of heat will do to you! Such was the state of the heat shield that protected NASA’s Orion Spaceship after it re-entered the atmosphere on Dec. 5th, 2014. Having successfully protected the craft during it’s test flight, the shield was removed and transported to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where it arrived on March. 9th.
Since that time, a steady stream of NASA employees have been coming by the facility to get a look at it while engineers collect data and work to repair it. In addition to being part of a mission that took human-rated equipment farther out into space than anything since the Apollo missions, the heat shield is also living proof that NASA is restoring indigenous space capability to the US.
First unveiled by NASA in May of 2011, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) was intrinsic to the Obama administration’s plan to send astronauts to a nearby asteroid by 2025 and going to Mars by the mid-2030’s. In addition to facilitating these long-range missions, the Orion spacecraft would also handle some of the routine tasks of spaceflight, such as providing a means of delivering and retrieving crew and supplies from the ISS.
The uncrewed test flight that took place on December 5, 2014, known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), was intended to test various Orion systems, including separation events, avionics, heat shielding, parachutes, and recovery operations prior to its debut launch aboard the Space Launch System,
This design of this mission corresponded to the Apollo 4 mission of 1967, which demonstrated the effectiveness of the Apollo flight control systems and the heat shields ability to withstand re-entry conditions, as part of the spacecraft’s return from lunar missions.
After being retrieved, the heat shield was transported by land to the Marshall Space Flight Center, where it was offloaded and transferred to a large support structure so engineers could perform studies on it for the next three months.
This will consist of collecting samples from the shield to measure their char layers and degree of erosion and ablation, as well as extracting the various instruments embedded in the heat shield to assess their performance during re-entry.
After the analysis is complete, technicians will load the shield into the 7-axis milling machine and machining center, where it will be grind down to remove the remaining material covering. Known as Avcoat, this heat-retardant substance is similar to what the Apollo missions used, with the exception of toxic materials like asbestos.
This material is used to fill the 320,000 honeycomb-like cells that make up the outer layer of the shield. When heated, the material burns away (aka. ablates) in order to prevent heat being transferred into the crew module. This shield is placed over the craft’s titanium skeleton and carbon-fiber skin, providing both protection and insulation for the interior.
Once all the Avcoat is removed and only the skeletal frame remains, it will be shipped to the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for more tests. Since the Orion was returning from a greater distance in space than anything since Apollo, it experienced far greater heat levels than anything in recent decades, reaching as high as 2200 °C (4000 °F).
Instrumentation in the shield measured the rise of the surface and internal temperatures during re-entry as well as the ablation rate of the shield’s coating. Over the next few months, NASA experts will be pouring over this data to see just how well the Orion shield held up under extreme heat. But so far, the results look positive – with only 20% of the Avcoat burning away on the test-flight re-entry.
In the future, the Orion spacecraft will be launched on Space Launch System on missions that will take it to nearby asteroids and eventually Mars. The first mission to carry astronauts is not expected to take place until 2021 at the earliest.
Further Reading: NASA