The European-built service module that powers the Orion spacecraft during the Artemis 1 mission makes its first lunar round trip, but a key system to keep future human crews alive goes untested during the flight.
The Orion capsulewho started the second leg from its breakthrough journey on Thursday (December 1), is currently not filled with breathable air, European aerospace giant Airbus told Space.com. According to Airbus, which built Orion Service Modulethe capsule’s life support system will only be fully tested in ground-based labs before the first flight with astronauts in 2024.
The European-built service module, responsible for propulsion and navigation, is the part of the spacecraft that maintains living conditions inside Orion’s crew compartment. The service module carries water that astronauts will need during the flight and generates breathable air by mixing oxygen and nitrogen which are stored in separate tanks.
Related: NASA’s Artemis 1 Lunar Mission: Live Updates
During the Mission Artemis 1however, the engineers are only testing the nitrogen delivery system, but fortunately neither Shaun the Sheepthe stuffed animal sent for the mission by the European Space Agency (ESA), nor the three mannequins occupying the cockpit of Orionkeep this fact in mind.
“Oxygen and nitrogen delivery systems are very similar,” Airbus spokesman Ralph Heinrich told Space.com in an email. “We are carrying nitrogen on board Artemis 1 and will test the nitrogen delivery system during the current flight. As the oxygen and nitrogen systems carry the same components, testing of the nitrogen delivery system Nitrogen will similarly cover the oxygen delivery. In addition, the oxygen system is extensively field tested.”
For Airbus, the Artemis 1 mission represents a great victory. The company was awarded a contract to develop the Service Module, a key component of the Orion spacecraft, by ESA, based on their previous experience building the Automated transfer vehiclea cargo spacecraft that was used to supply international space station between 2008 and 2014. During its lunar sorties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, NASA built all the required technology at home in the United States and did not include any international partners.
The Artemis 1 service module is the culmination of ten years of work, and the Airbus team is delighted to see the machine performing brilliantly. So far, the service module has completed all of its key tasks flawlessly, including three engine burns, which first helped Orion enter orbit around the moon and then exit lunar orbit back to Earth.
In a post-launch press conference, NASA admitted to detecting 13 anomalies during the first phase of Orion’s flight, including erratic readings from the star trackers the space capsule uses to navigate.
“Engineers will review the data coming back from Orion so that every system, every component on board the spacecraft can be tested in some way before the next mission,” said Sian Cleaver, project manager of the European service module. at Airbus told Space.com in an interview. “So far, everything is going well. Of course, there will be things that can be improved or changed. There are a few things that haven’t worked exactly as planned, but none of them have been a major problem.”
Airbus engineers receive a stream of data from the spacecraft, including “pressure, temperature, valve position data, and currents and voltages” to monitor its health, Airbus wrote in an email.
“We review all data throughout the mission, and especially during major events, such as main engine ignitions,” Airbus wrote. “[We] ensure that the system is operating within its intended and qualified range. The data is also stored continuously, to allow post-flight analyzes and to prepare for the next Artemis missions.”
Airbus has already delivered the next service module to NASA to test and mate with the crew compartment for the Artemis 2 mission, which will take humans into orbit around the moon for the first time since the last flight. Apollo in 1972. This mission should launch no earlier than 2024, if all goes as planned. The company has also nearly completed assembly of the third service module, which will power the Artemis 3 mission which is expected to involve a moon landing no earlier than 2025.
The fourth service module bones have also been assembled and plans are in place to begin work on the fifth specimen later this month. These service modules will cover the Artemis 4 and 5 missions, which are scheduled to launch to the Moon later this decade. At that time, the Lunar Gateway space station will orbit the Moon, ushering in a new era of regular human visits to Earth’s companion.
“It really looks like a production line going on at our factory,” Cleaver said. “It’s really exciting. The program is really, really in motion now. We have a plan for the next 10 years, and there are also clear messages from NASA and ESA that the moon is only the first step and that the technology will be used to eventually go to Mars.”
Airbus is under contract to build service module number six and is currently negotiating another batch of three. Service Mods are single-use and will detach from the Crew Pod before it enters earth’s atmosphere upon his return.
The Artemis 1 mission lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 16. The mission was a start not only for Orion, but also for the Space Launch System mega rocket that launched it into space. During the mission, Orion passed just 80 miles (130 kilometers) above the surface of the moon and also broke a record for the furthest distance from Earth ever reached by a human-sized spacecraft. By moving up to 435,000 km away from the planet, Orion surpassed the previous maximum held by the Apollo 13 mission. That mission, however, only went so far as part of a rescue operation designed to bring him home after an onboard explosion cripples the spacecraft.
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