NASA’s Artemis I is the first of three increasingly complex missions in the Artemis program. It aims to return humans, including the first woman, to the Moon in the middle of this decade.
Artemis I is a mission of firsts.
It is the first full test of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the world’s most powerful rocket. The SLS will launch the uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a 2.1 million kilometre round trip to the Moon. While it is heading away from Earth, engineers will be evaluating the spacecraft’s systems.
As Orion orbits the Moon, it will reach a furthest point of 450,000 kilometres from Earth, further than any spacecraft built for humans has ever been.
It will also be the longest time such a spacecraft has spent in space without docking to a space station. Plus, its re-entry – at 40,000 kilometres per hour – will be faster and hotter than any before. All going well, it will splashdown (land) in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego.
Communication is vital, don’t leave Earth without us!
You need a reliable line of communication to send instructions to the spacecraft and so the spacecraft can send its data back to Earth. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), which we manage on behalf of NASA, is part of the Deep Space Network. This network provides this vital communications connection for Artemis I from launch to splashdown.
Just as astronauts train for missions, our CDSCC team has been in training for the past two years. They have been running through dozens of simulations for both the prime Artemis mission and the flotilla of small cubesats that will be deployed during the flight (more on these later).
Testing for future crewed mission
While Artemis I is an uncrewed mission, there are three ‘passengers’ aboard the Orion spacecrafts designed to test the flight conditions for future astronauts.
Affectionately known as a ‘moonikin’, the mission includes an astronaut analogue named Commander Moonikin Campos. It is dressed in the type of spacesuit that future Moon-bound astronauts will wear. Finally, it is packed with instrumentation to test the effects of the journey on the human body.
Commander Moonikin Campos is named in honour of Apollo 13 electrical power subsystem manager Arturo Campos.
There are also two mannequin torsos to mimic human bones, soft tissues and organs of an adult female body. These torsos have more than 5600 sensors within them to measure the effects of the flight and test a radiation protection vest worn by one.
Artemis I will carry 10 shoebox-sized miniaturised satellites, called cubesats, to study the Sun and asteroids, and explore the Moon and beyond.
These cubesats were developed by universities, space agencies and private space ventures from Japan, Italy, Europe and the United States.
Several of these small satellites will photo-map the Moon and study the amount and distribution of water located there. A Japanese craft will attempt to land on the Moon using a semi-rigid structure, demonstrating new ways for future missions to ‘touchdown’.
Other craft will study the Earth’s plasmasphere, and test new propulsion technologies for future small craft that will explore the solar system.
A cubesat called NEA Scout, which is 34 x 20 x 10 centimetres, will undertake the most ambitious mission. The tiny craft will deploy a gossamer-thin 86 square metre solar sail. Using the pressure of light from the Sun, the solar sail will propel the craft on a two-year journey to study a near-Earth asteroid.
With Artemis, NASA are planning to build an orbiting outpost called Lunar Gateway. This will act as a departure point for astronauts heading to the Moon’s surface. Longer term plans include constructing a permanent scientific base near the south pole of the Moon. This will allow them to gain experience working on another planetary body, before turning their attention to sending humans to Mars.
And we will be there with them, keeping our robotic and human explorers in touch with everyone back home.