Artemis I, NASA’s new mission to the moon, explained

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A new NASA rocket is about to lift off on a historic mission to the Moon. The Artemis I mission will not land on the lunar surface, but the journey itself will be the furthest a vehicle designed for human astronauts has ever traveled in space.

There won’t be any humans on NASA’s big trip, but there will be three astronauts: Helga, Zohar and Moonikin Campos. They are high-tech dummies, that’s the term for human models used in scientific research, filled with sensors that will test how the human body responds to space travel. Helga and Zohar are designed to measure the effects of radiation on women’s bodies in space, and Moonikin Campos will sit in the commander’s seat to track how difficult a trip to the Moon can be for the future members of the human crew. While these dummies may not look particularly impressive on their own, they will play a critical role in NASA’s ambitions to build a new path to the Moon and eventually send astronauts to Mars. They are also just one of several science experiments aboard the mission aimed at improving our understanding of space travel.

The Artemis I mission will begin Monday morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA is currently targeting a liftoff window between 8:33 and 10:33 a.m. ET. At that time, the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, will lift off, carrying the Orion spacecraft in its nose. Once the vehicle leaves orbit, Orion will travel past the Moon and then thousands of miles beyond it, before turning around and returning to Earth, a 1.3 million mile journey that will last 42 days You can watch the launch here, starting Monday at 6:30am ET.

“This is a good demonstration that the rocket is working the way it’s supposed to,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, told Recode. “It’s going to give NASA a little more confidence for the manned missions coming up in the next couple of years.”

Artemis is the next generation of lunar missions. It is part of NASA’s broader ambitions for lunar exploration, which include trips by astronauts to the surface of the Moon, a human lunar habitat and a new space station called Gateway. Artemis I also lays the groundwork for the next two missions in the Artemis program: Artemis 2 is slated to send humans on a similar trip around the Moon in 2024, and Artemis 3 will make history with the first woman and first person of color . on the lunar surface sometime in 2025 at the earliest. All of the research done on Artemis I, including Helga, Zohar, and Moonikin Fields, is intended to prepare for these later missions.

All aboard Artemis 1

NASA’s Moon Voyager, the SLS, was designed to carry an extremely heavy payload. The rocket is only a few feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and can generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust. Like other launch systems, the SLS is made up of several different stages, each of which plays a role in overcoming Earth’s gravity, breaking through the atmosphere and reaching outer space. To make this possible, the SLS features twin solid rocket boosters, as well as a 212-foot-tall center stage filled with more than 700,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. It’s the largest center stage NASA has ever built.

View of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion spacecraft on board from the Rocco A. Petrone Launch Control Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images

After liftoff, the thrusters will fire for about 2 minutes before separating from the vehicle, falling back to Earth and landing in the Atlantic Ocean. After eight minutes, the center stage will do the same. At this point, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) will take over and circle the Earth once. About 90 minutes into the flyby, ICPS will give Orion the “big push” it needs to start flying toward the moon and then fall.

Although technically new, the SLS is based on older technology. Several of its components, including its main engines, are or are based on systems used by NASA’s space shuttle program, which ended in 2011. And while other space launches have begun to use reusable rocket boosters, or at least partially reusable, the SLS launched Monday will only fly once. This differentiates SLS from Starship, the super-heavy launch vehicle that SpaceX is designing for missions to the moon. SpaceX, which beat out Blue Origin for a $2.9 billion contract to build NASA’s lunar landing system, expects Starship’s first orbital test flight to take place within the next six months. Congress’s decision to fund SLS is a sore point in the space industry because the project ran billions over budget and was delayed several times, and because private companies are developing less expensive alternatives.

“Congress has endured the budget overrun, belatedly, because SLS has kept money and jobs flowing in key congressional districts,” Whitman Cobb explains.

There is broad support for Orion, which NASA designed specifically for Artemis missions, as well as possible trips to nearby asteroids or Mars. The spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin, and from the outside it looks like a giant turkey with wing-like panels sticking out of its side. Orion is home to the Artemis Crew Module, which is where astronauts going to and from the Moon will spend their time. Once the spacecraft is screened for human astronauts, the crew module is expected to offer several space travel amenities, including sleeping bags, an assortment of new space food bars with NASA recipes, and a renovated space toilet designed for zero gravity and people of all. genders.

On this mission, the primary passengers will be a collection of science experiments. One test involves NASA mannequins Zohar and Helga, which are made of 38 slices of plastic that are meant to mimic human tissue, as well as more than 5,600 sensors and 34 radiation detectors. There is a high level of radiation in space, which is a constant source of concern that future astronauts may face a higher risk of cancer, especially as space travel becomes longer and more ambitious. . Both mannequins were designed with breasts and uterus because women are usually more sensitive to radiation. Zohar will also wear a specialized protective vest called AstroRed, which engineers are evaluating as a potential way to protect astronauts from radiation, even during solar flares. Helga will not receive a vest and will allow NASA to study how much AstroRed really helped.

Orion also runs an experiment that wants to test how yeast responds to radiation. The researchers plan to store the freeze-dried yeast under one of Orion’s crew seats, then expose the yeast to the liquid for three days in space. Once Orion lands back on Earth, scientists will analyze the yeast’s DNA to study how it fared. The experiment could provide insight into how humans might stay healthy in space during future journeys.

A version of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, which has been downloaded to an iPad, is also coming. NASA is testing Callisto, a virtual AI that Amazon, Cisco and Lockheed Martin designed to communicate with astronauts. Although the technology might sound a bit like HAL 2001: A space odysseyengineers say the system is meant to provide assistance and companionship.

“Callisto is an autonomous payload aboard the Orion spacecraft and has no control over flight control or other mission-critical systems,” says Justin Nikolaus, lead designer of Alexa experiences at Amazon.

Other aspects of the Artemis I payload are more sentimental. A plush doll version of the character Shaun the Sheep from the Wallace and Gromit franchise will travel to Orion. So will a Snoopy doll dressed in an astronaut suit, along with a nib that Charles M. Schultz used to draw the Peanuts series, wrapped in a comic strip. Also on display are moments from the Apollo 11 mission, which landed the first humans on the lunar surface in the 1960s, including a small sample of moon dust and a piece of an engine.

beyond the moon

Some of Artemis I’s most important research projects will not return to Earth. The mission includes plans to launch 10 miniature satellites, called CubeSats, into lunar orbit. These satellites will collect data that NASA, along with private companies, could use to navigate on and around the Moon.

One satellite, LunIR, will study the safety of the lunar surface with infrared images, producing information that could influence where astronauts will travel. A satellite, called Lunar IceCube, will try to detect lunar water sources, which NASA could use as a resource. Another satellite, NEA Scout, will head to a nearby small asteroid, a side trip that could inform future manned missions to other asteroids. The satellites will be launched by another component, called the Orion Stage Adapter, only when the spacecraft is at a safe distance.

The Orion spacecraft is loaded onto a NASA aircraft on the runway at the Florida Space Launch Facility at the Kennedy Space Center on November 21, 2019.
Courtesy of NASA

These satellites are a reminder that NASA is interested in much more than visiting the Moon. The Artemis program is laying the groundwork for an unprecedented level of activity on the lunar surface, including a human base camp, a series of nuclear reactors and a mineral extraction operation. NASA has specifically said it wants to develop a lunar economy, and the space agency has also established the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for exploring the moon that more than 20 countries have now joined.

Eventually, NASA plans to make the moon a stop on a much more ambitious journey: a human mission to Mars. Right now, it looks like that could happen in the late 2030s. But while many of these plans are still a long way off, it’s clear that the Artemis program is much more than a repeat of the Apollo program.

“Apollo was a political act in the context of the Cold War to demonstrate US national power to the world. It was explicitly a race with the Soviet Union to be the first on the moon. Once we were the first to the moon, the reason to continue disappeared,” explains John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Artemis is intended as the first program in a long-term program of human exploration.”

Of course, this all depends on the Artemis I mission running smoothly. NASA still needs to evaluate how SLS and Orion work together during liftoff. The space agency also needs to study how well Orion survives its descent through the atmosphere, something we won’t know for a long time. If all goes well, the Orion capsule, along with its payload of science experiments and galactic tchotchkes, will return to Earth and splash into the Pacific Ocean on October 10.

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