After its first two launch attempts were scrubbed, NASA's Artemis I mission finally lifted off from Kennedy Space Center's pad 39B in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Nov. 16. The launch countdown will begin at 1:24 a.m. EST Nov. 14.
That's good news for people like Craig Hardgrove, an associate professor at Arizona State University's school of Earth and space exploration. He was born in 1981, making him too young to remember the last time that NASA astronauts walked on the lunar surface nearly a half a century ago. That's one reason that Hardgrove says he's thrilled to see NASA take the first major step toward resuming manned missions to the moon.
This is essentially an unmanned rehearsal for a manned flight that will journey to the moon and land somewhere in its southern polar region in 2025. NASA describes the flight as the first integrated test of its Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the ground systems at Kennedy.
After being launched on the most powerful rocket ever developed, the Orion spacecraft will venture farther than any vehicle designed for humans has ever flown, traveling 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from Earth to a location beyond the far side of the moon. In the process, Orion will stay in space for 42 days, longer than any human spacecraft that hasn't docked to a space station.
After coming within 60 miles (97 kilometers) of the moon's surface and traveling a total of 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers), Artemis I's Orion spacecraft will have a targeted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean somewhere off the coast of San Diego.
One of the main objectives is to test Orion's heat shield when it reenters Earth's atmosphere. But this mission's goal is to demonstrate complete operational capabilities during all of its phases, including the SLS rocket launch.
"I'm hopeful that this is the start of, you know, a new future for people in space," says Hardgrove, who has another reason to be excited about the mission. He's the principal investigator for the LunaH-Map CubeSat, a shoebox-sized miniature space probe that will ride into space on Artemis I and be released about 6 to 7.5 miles (10 to 12 kilometers) from the lunar surface.
From that altitude, the tiny satellite will measure neutrons that are being leaked by the moon, in an effort to identify "how much water there is, and where it is on the south pole of the moon." (Researchers already have observed evidence of ice there.)
Mapping those water deposits someday could provide NASA with the ingredients to make rocket fuel, enabling a future in which spacecraft could be lighter and cheaper because they wouldn't have to haul fuel from the Earth's surface, Hardgrove explains. The ability to refuel at a lunar base also could enable NASA to venture farther and deeper into space than ever before. In addition to LunaH-Map, Artemis will carry nine other tiny satellites into space.
What's on Board Artemis?
The Artemis I mission will perform other scientific research as well. Instead of human astronauts, the Orion spacecraft will contain two female anthropomorphic ATOM Phantoms named Helga and Zohar. The mannequin-like devices are designed to measure potential radiation exposure to astronauts during the trip.
The devices are produced by CIRS, now part of Mirion Technologies' Sun Nuclear subsidiary. Zohar also will wear a radiation vest developed by an Israeli company, which is being tested to measure its effectiveness at mitigating exposure to solar particles, as part of the MARE experiment by Germany's Institute of Aerospace Medicine.
That research is especially crucial because female bodies have greater sensitivity to the effects of space radiation, according to NASA.
"Nine of 18 Artemis astronauts are women, a reflection of an increase in representation that's been decades in the making," Matthew Maddox, Mirion's vice president of marketing, explains via email." Artemis I and the MARE program are focused on updating the radiation science of space travel, to catch up to this shift in diversity. The anthropomorphic design of the female CIRS ATOM phantoms, flying as proxies for future astronauts, will help contribute to a better understanding of how space radiation impacts female bodies. The data gathered will show which parts of the anatomy are most at risk, and ultimately help shape systems designed to protect future space travelers."
Next Step, the Moon
Matt Siegler, a research scientist at Southern Methodist University and the Planetary Science Institute who isn't involved in Artemis I but has participated in research on other NASA missions, says the Artemis I launch could revive America's ability to get humans back to the moon.
"Like Apollo, before we strap our best and brightest astronauts to the top of a rocket, we need to test it," Siegler says via email. "So this launch will carry no people, but it will carry exact copies of all the systems we will need when they do go and instruments to make sure all is functioning as planned."
Siegler also is excited about scientists having greater access to the moon, which he describes as "a treasure trove of the history of the solar system, because things change so slowly there."
NASA is hopeful that all will go well with the mission. But as Mike Sarafin, NASA's Artemis I mission manager, told reporters at the Aug. 22 flight readiness briefing: "We're doing something that is incredibly difficult to do and does carry inherent risk in it."
After Artemis I, NASA will proceed ahead to Artemis II, possibly in the spring of 2024. That flight will be crewed by human astronauts, paving the way for Artemis III, which will include a piloted landing on the moon's surface. On Aug. 19, NASA announced 13 potential landing spots on the moon near its South Pole, each one containing multiple landing sites for Artemis III. All 13 have areas with continuous access to sunlight during the time period NASA plans for astronauts to be on the lunar surface. NASA says sunlight is critical for long-term stays on the moon.
Nelson told reporters in 2021 that the space agency expected to achieve that milestone by 2025 at the earliest, according to CBS News. Plans call also for Artemis III to land the first woman astronaut on the surface of the moon.
Now That's Important
The Orion spacecraft's reentry into the Earth's atmosphere will provide an important test of Artemis I's safety. It will enter the atmosphere at a speed of about 25,000 miles per hour (40,000 kilometers per hour) and slow to a speed of 300 miles per hour (480 kilometers per hour). In the process, the friction will create temperatures of approximately 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius). After deploying its parachutes, the spacecraft will slow to less than 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers per hour) before splashdown.
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