Behind the scenes at Artemis, NASA’s next lunar mission

Behind the scenes at Artemis, NASA's next lunar mission

Artemis' series of missions aims to land the first woman on the Moon in 2024.

In 2024, the first female astronaut will set foot on the surface of the Moon, 55 years after Neil Armstrong took his iconic little step. NASA's Artemis mission, named after the Greek goddess, involves designing new spacesuits, building a new spacecraft, and launching the world's most powerful rocket. The first mission, Artemis I, is scheduled for launch in 2021 to complete an unmanned flyby of the Moon. In 2023, Artemis II will send a crew on a flyby ahead of the Artemis III mission in 2024, in which two astronauts, a woman and a man, will land on the lunar surface.

Ensuring the spacecraft is ready for travel is a long process, involving months of testing, many of which were completed in late 2019 and early 2020 at NASA's Plum Brook station in Ohio. "We make sure that all systems on the spacecraft operate in the extreme environments of space," says Nicole Smith, chief of the Office of Exploration Systems at NASA's Glenn Research Center.

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In November 2019, the Orion spacecraft, which will be used on the Artemis I mission, flew from Florida to Ohio's Mansfield Lahm Airport, before heading to Plum Brook Station. The crew and service modules travel in NASA's Super Guppy, an aircraft 43.8 meters long and capable of carrying more than 20 tons, which has been used to transport sections of the International Space Station. The plane was first used in 1965, when NASA wanted to transport large pieces of rockets during the space race and needed them to travel faster than was possible by ship.

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After landing in Ohio, the Super Guppy's nose opens to unload the spacecraft into the cargo bay. The crew module and the service module, with a combined weight of 25 tons, are the heaviest payload ever carried on the plane - NASA had to modify the aircraft to make sure it could accommodate the weight. Preparations for the flight began in 2014 and included building a horizontal transport device and adapting the aircraft internally to ensure the spacecraft would fit. Four Orion spacecraft have been built to date, but NASA plans to commission up to 12 for future Artemis missions.

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The spacecraft is driven 66 km from the airport to NASA's Plum Brook Station, where it will spend four months undergoing tests at the Space Environment Complex (SEC). The facility houses the largest vacuum chamber in the world, which is used to simulate space conditions. Called the Space Power Facility (SPF), the chamber has a volume of 22.653 square meters and is capable of reaching 0.000004 torr. Compared to normal atmospheric pressure, which is 760 torr, this is the closest a spacecraft can get to the vacuum of space outside of actual experience.

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The vacuum chamber is cylindrical with a domed lid and has aluminum walls 30.5 meters in diameter and 37.2 meters high. The first tests Orion undergoes are thermal vacuum tests: it is flushed with nitrogen and all air is removed, then it is exposed to very hot and very cold temperatures. It is then subjected to electromagnetic testing. Radio waves are used to verify that spacecraft systems do not interfere with each other, as each bit in the kit creates its own electromagnetic field, and to ensure that external radio sources do not affect equipment.

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The cage-like structure in this image is the Heat Flux system, which is used for thermal vacuum testing. "The bars in the cage are all heating bars," says Smith, "which allows us to do many kinds of tests." The rods can separately heat different parts of the spacecraft to simulate travel to or away from the Sun. In total, Orion spent 47 days inside the chamber going from -156 ° C to 149 ° C, close to the extreme temperatures that you will experience in space, but not quite.

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In 2018, a test version of the Orion crew module, shown here, was placed at the SEC's reverberant acoustic test facility. The largest facility of its kind, it exposes spacecraft to the kind of loudness they will experience during launch and ascent. The reverberant acoustic chamber has 1.8 meter thick concrete walls and is designed to create as much noise as possible, producing up to 163 dB within the 2,860 m3 chamber. While the tests are being carried out, the room is filled with nitrogen to minimize sound absorption.

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The horn wall in the reverberant acoustic test rig has 36 horns of various sizes, each capable of producing different frequencies. The metal horns are hydraulic, while the white ones are electric. Once the Artemis I crew module splashes after its mission, it will be returned to the facility in Ohio for further acoustic testing. "They'll get it out of the ocean, revamp it a bit, and clean it up," says Smith. "Then he will be back here in a couple of years." NASA aims to reuse the crew modules used in most missions at least once, starting with the Artemis II module.

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After four months of testing, the Orion spacecraft is packaged and ready to ship back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will go through final processing and preparation prior to launch in 2021. During the Artemis I mission, Orion will pass three weeks in space, traveling past the Moon before entering its orbit and finally returning to Earth, splashing in the Pacific Ocean. While in space, he will also deploy 13 cubesats to study the Moon. This will mark the first step for the first female astronaut to reach the surface of our natural satellite.

 

Source: Wired

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