After several delays, NASA’s Artemis I mission has finally launched and the Orion spacecraft is on course for an orbital appointment with the Moon. There are no human passengers on board, but that doesn’t mean the mission is all about stress testing a new crew capsule.
The primary goal of the first Artemis mission is to test Orion’s heat shield, mission operations, and salvage process – but there’s a ton of other stuff on board to test other vehicle functions as well, and NASA isn’t wasting the mission.
Meet Artemis I Commander Moonikin Campos and his crew
Orion isn’t entirely unmanned: there are three dummies on board that will be used to measure the radiation that future crews will be exposed to when flying to the moon or beyond.
Commander Moonikin Campos – named via a public competition – is a full-length mannequin that occupies the Commander’s seat. First name aside, Arturo Campos was the Mexican-American electrical power subsystem manager for Apollo 13, whose work was key to giving the astronauts enough power to return to Earth.
Commander Moonikin Campos in his seat
Helga and Zohar are two identical mannequin torsos strapped into the Orion’s crew seats and “made of materials that mimic human bones, soft tissue and organs of an adult female,” NASA explained.
The torsos are equipped with more than 5,600 sensors and 34 active radiation detectors. The only difference between them is that Zohar is wearing a radiation protection vest, which NASA is testing in collaboration with the German Aerospace Center and the Israel Space Agency, who were allowed to choose their respective names.
There are also some radiation measurement experiments running. NASA is testing six Radiation Area Monitors spread across the ship to passively monitor radiation, and there’s also the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor, or HERA.
HERA is an active instrument that NASA sees as an early warning monitor for future manned missions. The space agency said it will raise an alarm if too much radiation is detected in the crew compartment, signaling astronauts to take shelter in a reinforced section of the vehicle.
Space Seeds (and Mushrooms too)
Good for Orion’s dummy crew that no food is required. There is only the slightest trace of edible material on board and it is intended for something other than eating.
In the Orion crew cabin are four biological samples that will be used to study the effects of space travel on the nutritional value of seeds, the ability of fungi to repair DNA damage, the adaptation of yeast to life in space, and whether to test how gene expression changes in algae when it is removed from the soil.
The point of the experiments is the aforementioned space food supply, which NASA says needs to be tested to see if space radiation messes up the diet. Long-term missions mean local production of resources.
“The common theme of these investigations is the study of DNA damage and radiation protection for lunar missions, where radiation exposure will be approximately double that of the International Space Station,” NASA said.
Alexa, are we almost there?
There’s plenty of science experimentation on Orion, but there’s also a commercial tech experiment that’s brought Amazon’s Alexa and Cisco Webex right into the cockpit — the center console, no less.
The project, called Callisto, aims to show how commercial technology could help future human space missions. It includes the addition of a Webex tablet for video conferencing between crews and Mission Control, as well as an Alexa voice assistant that can respond to questions about the ship’s status and issue commands for the ship to perform a specific task.
Callisto on the bench. Photo credit: Lockheed Martin
Of course, there’s a lot of lag time between asking a question to Alexa and getting a response from a terrestrial AWS server, so NASA had to rig their system to include a local database.
“I can envision a future where astronauts can access flight status and telemetry information — such as spacecraft orientation, water supply levels, or battery voltage status — through simple voice commands,” said Howard Hu, NASA’s Orion program manager at Johnson Space Center. However, there’s no word on whether Alexa will be able – or willing – to unlock the pod bay doors.
Cubesats steal the show
It’s important to ask Alexa about passing meteor storms and experimenting with seeds and mushrooms, but it’s not as exciting as the set of ten shoebox-sized CubeSats that made a ride on Artemis I possible.
The satellites – some from NASA and other space agencies, others from researchers and private companies – were housed in the Orion stage adapter. This is the part of the larger launch vehicle that attached the Orion capsule to the SLS rocket.
After the preliminary cryogenic propulsion phase boosted Orion out of Earth orbit and separated, all ten satellites deployed and are now on course towards their mission objectives. Some will accompany Orion on his journey to the moon, but not all.
One satellite, known as the Lunar IceCube, is equipped with a spectrometer that it will use to study lunar ice. NASA has known for some time that there is water ice on the Moon, it said, “but Lunar IceCube will advance NASA’s knowledge of lunar ice dynamics.”
NASA’s Lunar IceCube
Scientists on Earth will use IceCube to study the uptake and release of water into the moon’s regolith and use it to study the moon’s thin atmosphere.
The Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper is also en route to the moon, where it will study the distribution and abundance of hydrogen at the moon’s south pole. During its 60-day mission, NASA hopes to create a high-resolution map of the moon’s major water resources and determine if that water could serve as a resource for long-term lunar missions.
LunIR will only conduct a lunar flyby, but will use a miniature infrared sensor to collect images of the lunar surface during its mission. Data collected includes material composition, thermal signatures, presence of water and identification of possible landing sites.
The CubeSat for studying solar particles – or CuSP – is not going to be hanging around. It used its Artemis-enhanced launch to launch an orbit around the sun, which it will eventually launch into interplanetary space, where it will measure space radiation towards Earth – which works like a space weather satellite.
OMOTENASHI, on the other hand, is heading straight for the moon and plans to land there. The Japanese-designed lunar lander will demonstrate how inexpensive and small landing craft could be used to explore the lunar surface.
EQUILEUS is on the way to the moon, but not all the way there. It will settle at the Earth-Moon Lagrange point 2, where the gravitational pull of the Moon and Earth is equal. There, EQUULEUS will measure the distribution of Earth’s plasmasphere, which NASA says will provide insights into protecting people and electronics during space travel.
The BioSentinel Cubesat is the first long-term biological experiment to take place outside of the International Space Station’s orbit, NASA said. BioSentinel contains samples of two different strains of yeast that the ship will activate periodically throughout the six to 12 month mission. The goal of the mission is to see how the two tribes respond to space radiation to help NASA develop strategies to reduce radiation damage to astronauts.
Yeast sample card from BioSentinel
The ArgoMoon of the Italian space agency also flew with Artemis. The ship is equipped with advanced cameras and imaging software to capture images of Orion and the Earth and Moon. The images are being taken for “historical documentation” and to provide data on the deployment of the other CubeSats and to test optical communications with Earth.
NASA also launched a cube satellite called Near-Earth Asteroid Scout on course for an asteroid less than 60 feet wide called 2020 GE. It will be the first time a spacecraft has visited an asteroid less than 330 feet in diameter, NASA said. NEA Scout will make its approach in September 2023.
Finally, there’s a satellite on board called Team Miles, which was developed in partnership with software company Fluid & Reason as part of NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge, which awarded grants to groups developing CubeSats.
Team Miles will embark on their mission into outer space, with a plan to travel farther than any tiny spaceship before it. The team’s goal is to win a communication distance award, so they are aiming for a communication distance of 100 million kilometers (56 million miles). For comparison: the sun is about 148 million kilometers away from the earth.
The communication system isn’t the only interesting thing about Team Miles. The vehicle features a new form of ionic plasma propulsion that “consumes a very small amount of fuel to produce tremendous thrust,” the company explained in a NASA video about the project.
NASA had plans to add three more satellites, but Lunar Flashlight, Cislunar Explorer, and Earth Escape Explorer couldn’t meet deadlines, and check-in times for these voyages are very strict. Hopefully Artemis I will be a success so these three can find their way on board next launch. ®