NASA’s Artemis 1 – “Getting Back to the Moon”

By Devesh Sharma

September 26, 2022
SLS Rocket of Artemis 1 Mission, at the launch pad
Standing atop the mobile launcher, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft can be seen at Launch Pad 39B at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 18, 2022. Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett

After a very long wait of 50 years, mankind is ready, yet again, going to plant its feet on the moon.

Under its highly ambitious Artemis Program, NASA just launched its first Artemis mission, Artemis 1.

This has marked the beginning of NASA’s quest to take humans back to the moon under the Artemis program.

Although the Artemis Program officially started in 2017, under Space Directive 1, intending to send humans back to the moon, it had been under work for 5 years already i.e., since 20121

In 2012, it was started with the name “Exploration Mission-1”, and was then set to launch in late 2016 but it was delayed at least 16 times.

Later, with the Artemis program introduced, Exploration Mission-1 converted to the Artemis 1 mission which finally launched on the 16th of November at 1:47 a.m. EST.

NASA is launching this mission under the tagline – “We Are Going”, and it only shows their strong commitment to achieving this legacy on American soil. 

It is indeed not only a historical moment for NASA but also a very decisive moment for the future of deep space exploration.

With this, NASA hopes that it will be able to launch SLS as planned and if all goes well, mankind shall witness the “first step towards another step on the moon”.

The primary objective of the Artemis 1 mission is to test the Orion Spacecraft to ensure the safety of astronauts in future Artemis missions. 

Artemis 1 Mission Objectives & Specifications

Artemis 1 is the first mission under the Artemis Program.

The primary objective of Artemis 1 is to test the Orion Spacecraft’s capabilities in a spaceflight environment and ensure the safe operation of the spacecraft during launch, maneuver, re-entry, splashdown, and recovery before the crewed mission – Artemis 22.

It is going to be an unmanned mission following which, various other missions including the crewed ones are to come in hopes of setting up a Lunar Base Camp that will allow us to further perform deep space exploration operations in the solar system.

In the mission, NASA will launch the SLS rocket, carrying the Orion and 10 CubeSats (miniature satellites or nanosatellites that serve as research spacecraft), into the low-earth orbit.

Space Launch System (SLS) Rocket & Orion Spacecraft

An expanded view of an artist rendering of the Block 1 70-metric-ton configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Credits: NASA/MSFC

The SLS rocket is designed for missions beyond low-Earth orbit carrying crew or cargo to the Moon and beyond.

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SLS is currently the most powerful rocket ever built and is the only one that can send Orion, astronauts, and cargo directly to the Moon on a single mission.

The SLS rocket consists of a core stage with 4 RS-25 engines – the same engines which were used in Space Shuttles (NASA’s retired reusable, low-earth orbital spacecraft).

For initial thrust, the SLS rocket accompanies two solid boosters which are taken from the Space Shuttle.

The upper stage of SLS is the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) which fires the RL-10 engine. 

On the top of ICPS, sits the Orion Spacecraft, which would carry the astronauts to lunar orbit.

Testing Orion Spacecraft’s Capabilities

Illustration of the Orion Spacecraft – the NASA spacecraft that will carry astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit and back. Credits: NASA

It is developed by NASA in a joint venture with Lockheed Martin – the prime contractor for Orion. 

The Orion capsule was first tested back in 2014 under Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) where it was launched aboard the Delta IV

It orbited the earth and later re-entered the earth’s atmosphere safely without any damage.

Orion was first tested back in 2014 under Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) where it was launched aboard the Delta IV

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Learning from the EFT-1 launch, NASA and Lockheed have refined the heat shield of Orion, reduced the overall mass of the spacecraft, and made some changes in the production line to reduce the cost of production.

NASA has worked on several new technologies to build Orion so it is needed to be tested in real spaceflight scenarios.

The Orion architecture consists of the following modules3:

  • CM (Crew Module)
  • ESM (European Service Module)
  • CMA (Crew Module Adapter)
  • SA (Spacecraft Adapter)
  • SAJ (Spacecraft Adapter Jettisoned Fairings)
  • LAS (Launch Abort System)

Various capabilities of Orion will be tested during the launch, in space & around the moon, and during the re-entry.

Infographics showing different phases of Artemis 1 mission from launch to re-entry. Credits: NASA

Orion’s Launch to Space

The SLS rocket will produce 8.8 million pounds of initial thrust during liftoff.

Orion’s seats are designed to prevent astronauts from passing out while experiencing 5G’s of force during launch and re-entry.

The outer shell of the crew module is built to protect astronauts not only from the vacuum of space, but also from the collision of small meteorites, orbital debris, and radiation.

It would ensure the safe operation of the mission so that astronauts can make a trip to the moon and return home safely.

As the Orion spacecraft makes an orbit of Earth, its solar arrays will be deployed and the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) will give Orion the big push needed to leave Earth’s orbit and travel toward the Moon.

Then Orion will separate from the ICPS, which is about two hours after the launch.

The ICPS will then deploy a number of small satellites, known as CubeSats, to perform several experiments and technology demonstrations.

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Orion Onto the Moon

On its way to the Moon, the spacecraft will go through the Van Allen Radiation belt and demonstrate its navigation and communication capabilities using its Deep Space Network.

SLS will then perform a trans-lunar injection (a spacecraft maneuver) that would set the Orion for the lunar orbit. 

Orion will fly as close as 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the surface of the moon in its periapsis (a point in orbit when it is closest to the Moon). 

During this time, data will be collected to assess the performance of the spacecraft.

Orion’s Return and Re-entry

After about four to six weeks the mission will end and Orion will return to perform a splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

Following its playtime, it will set its trajectory using the timed engine firing of the European-provided service module (ESM) in conjunction with the Moon’s gravity to accelerate back toward Earth, demonstrating relevant operations.

Thermal insulation is built in a way so that the cabin’s temperature can be maintained at 25ºC despite the scorching heat outside the spacecraft during re-entry.

During re-entry, Orion is expected to be experiencing up to 2760ºC (5000ºF)  of temperature, while traveling at 11 kilometers per second, which is faster and hotter than its 2014 flight test4.

Orion will attempt the landing within the eyesight of the recovery ship off the coast of Baja, California5.

Further, Orion will remain powered for a period of time as divers from the U.S. Navy and operations teams from NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems approach in small boats from the waiting recovery ship.

Artemis 1 Mission Duration & Distance

The duration of Artemis 1 would be approximately 38 days (37 days, 23 hours, and 53 minutes to be precise).

It will travel a total distance of about 1.3 million miles.

The following crewed mission in the future will be the longest and farthest from Earth humans have ever been.

Artemis 1 Launch Schedule & Changes

Despite all of the preparations and developments, Artemis 1 is facing challenges even lifting off.

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Artemis 1 was initially scheduled to launch on 29th August but was then scrubbed because one of the faulty sensors in the engines gave false temperature readings. 

Why was the Artemis 1 Launch Consecutively Postponed?

Artemis 1’s launch has been scrubbed three times in a row due to issues involving fuel leakage, a faulty sensor, and Ian Looms(a tropical storm in Florida that is expected to become a hurricane by 26th Sept 2022 and slam into Florida’s Gulf coast by 29th Sept 2022)6.

Before igniting the engines, it is required to cool them down to very cold temperatures so that they can withstand the high temperatures of burning fuel. 

But due to a faulty sensor, they couldn’t determine if the spacecraft’s third engine had been cooled down enough7.

After ensuring the proper flow of hydrogen into the engine, Artemis 1 was set to launch on 3rd September.

However, the flight was hindered yet again due to fuel leakage. 

The fuel wasn’t leaking from the tank itself but from the quick disconnect fitting during fuel loading8.

Meanwhile, a question that arises is: Is it even safe to send humans aboard the SLS rocket when it couldn’t even lift off?

Well, it’s not the first time that NASA has been dealing with fuel injection and leakage issues.

It has happened before (with the Space Shuttle), and it is happening again, and we need to understand that issues like these are not insurmountable hurdles9.

NASA has even declared the tanking test on SLS a success. 

The day-long test, held at the Kennedy Space Center, was conducted on 21st September wherein engineers and scientists performed several tests on the SLS rocket such as filling the core stage with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants.

The test didn’t go butter-smooth as the SLS experienced two leakage issues during the tanking test. 

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However, that’s not worrisome as the fuel leakage, with troubleshooting, appeared to diminish over time and fell to a very acceptable level.

We were just about to witness the flight of the first (out of god knows how many) Artemis mission, which, after the two postponements, the launch “was” planned for 27th September – the closest launch window available [10].

It was postponed again due to a tropical storm in Florida10.

But finally, it lifted off from Kennedy Space Centre on 16 November at 1:47 a.m. EST.

Recommendations

Devesh Sharma, Vikrant Singh and Pranav Mahapatra, ‘NASA’s Artemis Program – Mankind Returning to Moon’, NASA, 28 August 2022

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Liftoff sequence and space entry of Orion on December 5, 2014.

References

  1. S.3729 – 111th Congress (2009-2010): National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010.Congress.gov, 2022[]
  2. NASA: Artemis I’, NASA, 2022, “The primary goals for Artemis I are to demonstrate Orion’s systems in a spaceflight environment and ensure a safe re-entry, descent, splashdown, and recovery prior to the first flight with crew on Artemis II.”[]
  3. Herbert J. Kramer, ‘Artemis-I’, eoPortal – European Space Agency, 29 November 2019[]
  4. Kathryn Hambleton, ‘Around the Moon with NASA’s first Launch of SLS with Orion’, NASA, 24 August 2022, “This maneuver will set the spacecraft(…)5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius)”[]
  5. Kathryn Hambleton, ‘Around the Moon with NASA’s first Launch of SLS with Orion’, NASA, 24 August 2022, “Orion’s capability to return safely to the Earth as the spacecraft makes a precision landing within eyesight of the recovery ship off the coast of Baja, California.”[]
  6. Nasa delays Artemis 1 moon rocket launch again as tropical storm Ian looms’, The Guardian, 25 September 2022[]
  7. Rachel Kraft, ‌’Launch Attempt Scrubbed – Artemis’, NASA, 29 Aug. 2022[]
  8. Rachel Kraft, ‘Artemis I Launch Attempt Scrubbed – Artemis’ NASA, 3 Sept. 2022[]
  9. Tariq Malik, ‘NASA Fixing Fuel Leak on Space Shuttle Discovery’, NBC News, 20 Oct. 2010[]
  10. Rachel Kraft, ‘Artemis I Managers Wave Off Sept. 27 Launch, Preparing for Rollback‘, NASA, 24 September 2022[]
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