Artemis 1 has departed: destination Luna

Artemis 1 has departed: destination Luna

Artemis 1 has departed

It's off: after three postponements, Artemis 1 is finally flying towards the Moon.

With her begins a new chapter in humanity's space adventure, destined to take her, for the first time in fifty years, beyond the low orbit of the Earth.

Initially scheduled for August 29, this time, in front of thousands of people gathered since last night in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the unmanned mission took off from Kennedy Space Center's ramp 39b when in Italy it was 7:47 this morning, Wednesday 16 November. At that moment, the four RS-25 engines (literally the "advanced" ones from the Space Shuttle program) and the two solid propellant boosters propelled the 2608 tons of NASA's new Space Launch System (or SLS), the high carrier rocket into the sky 98 meters carrying the Orion , the new capsule for the exploration of deep space by NASA , which in the future will host up to four astronauts.

The side boosters of the massive launch system shut down and separated regularly two minutes and 12 seconds after lift-off. At eight minutes (and 16 seconds) it was the main stage of the giant booster rocket that disengaged from the Orion. Around 9:20 am Italian, the second stage will begin its main task: with an 18-minute ignition, it will push Orion and its service module to where they are destined to orbit for the next three and a half weeks, around our satellite natural. The manoeuvre, called "Trans Lunar Injection" and scheduled one hour and 38 minutes after take-off, has the task of raising the apogee of the orbit (the most distant point from the Earth) until it intersects the lunar orbit around the our Planet.

The Orion and the European Service Module in a rendered image (image: NASA)

Not this time, well repeat it: apart from the puppet Shaun the Sheep, of the European Space Agency, two female torsos and a mannequin for monitoring vibrations and cosmic radiation on the human body - they called them respectively Helga, Zohar and Moonikin Campos, the latter a tribute to an Apollo 13 engineer - Artemis 1 does not carry people. Its main objective is to qualify all the systems involved, i.e. to prove that everything from the Earth ramp to the Orion in space works as designed, and then inaugurate the program, christened as Apollo's divine twin, deputy, yes, to bring the first woman and next man on the Moon, but on the third mission, Artemis 3, currently expected no earlier than 2025 (2026 say the most skeptical mindful of the many delays that have accumulated up to now).

After that first crew it was expected that many will return continuously to the Moon, this time, as NASA has long proclaimed, "to stay there", i.e. to stay longer than the few days of permanence of the Apollo missions, which from July 1969 to December 1972 brought 12 men to walk on extra-terrestrial soil.

To see someone up there again, however, what will happen in the next few days will be crucial, while the journey of Artemis 1 will take it to travel the over two million kilometers expected before ending in the Pacific Ocean, where it is expected that Orion dives off San Diego on December 11th. will follow each phase of the mission, updating these lines already in the next few hours and accounting for another important novelty with respect to the race that pushed the United States to the moon for the first time: Artemis, in any case under American leadership, is a program based on extensive international collaboration, in particular of the European Space Agency (ESA), Japanese (Jaxa) and Canadian (CSA).

Collaboration in which Italy , coordinated by its own space agency, ASI , plays an important role, given that Leonardo , Thales Alenia Space and a series of small and medium enterprises - such as Cbl Electronics , Aviotec , Criotec, Alfa Mecc anica and Dtm Technologies - have contributed with industries from nine other countries to the European Service Module, which will supply the Orion with electricity, propulsion, thermal control, air and water (we wrote about it in more detail in this article).

What will happen shortly: Italy, ArgoMoon and the other travellers

The next phase of the current mission will testify to another significant participation of space in Italy in the lunar adventure: 3 hours and 57 from launch will begin the release sequence of the ten cubesats stored in the special adapter connected to the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (or Icps), the second stage of the SLS, at which point it separated from the Orion and the Service Module, which will continue their journey in autonomy.

The first to soar in the cosmos will be ArgoMoon, the only European satellite aboard Artemis 1, built on behalf of ASI by the Turin-based company Argotec, also a recent protagonist of the NASA p mission or planetary protection, Dart: “ I had the real awareness of what will happen in these hours only by joining the company a few weeks ago ” confides David Avino, founder of Argotec (in 2008) and its managing director. “ It's a moment we've been waiting for and have been building since 2015” . From one of the two Control Rooms in Turin, the Argotec team of technicians will have to operate ArgoMoon in all its tasks. The cubesat, a 10x30x20 centimeter parallelepiped, will have to provide NASA with visual confirmation of the correct execution of the Icps operations, which at the time of freeing the satellites will not be able to send signals to the Earth. The images, initially under embargo, should be published in the next few days. It should be noted that Earth will also receive footage from the Orion, which has a system of 12 cameras, both inside and outside the capsule, supplied by Redwire Space in collaboration with Lockheed Martin.

ArgoMoon, the cubesat aboard Artemis 1, built by Argotec for the Italian Space Agency (photo: Argotec/Asi)

Equipped with advanced and miniaturized subsystems within its 14 kilograms of overall mass, thanks to software based on the Argomoon artificial intelligence it will have to recognize the objects in its field of vision, it will autonomously carry out orbital and attitude maneuvers, to keep itself at the correct distance and capture images which, encrypted, it will send to the ground as soon as possible. “At that moment we will be about 40 thousand kilometers from the Earth – continues Avino – and once the position of the Icps has been identified, ArgoMoon will have to get closer to start filming it. It will be a complex operation, given that usually the commissioning of a satellite can take several days to verify each on-board system. To start working, however, ArgoMoon will have a few minutes, in which it will have to activate its solar panels, figure out where it is and stabilize itself through a star-tracker, then intercept the Icps and pick it up from a safe distance of 500 meters . It's unprecedented." ArgoMoon will be the first object made in Italy to fly towards the Moon: “a small technological jewel” as defined by Giorgio Saccoccia, the president of ASI.

Four more satellites will be released with the Argotec cubesat, while the last five will separate one at a time, at regular intervals for five hours in all. It is no coincidence that NASA has highlighted two, Lunar Icecube and Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper (or Luna HMap), which will study water deposits on the surface and in the lunar exosphere. As already written here, it is the index of how Artemis not only contemplates the participation of universities and small companies, but also new horizons of economic sustainability and exploitation of extraterrestrial resources. What many are beginning to refer to as the “ lunar economy ”.

Others will in fact be the cubesats dedicated to experiments on the Moon: LunIR , by Lockheed Martin (a company which is also responsible for the creation of the Orion), will measure the thermal emission and sunlight reflected from the selenic surface, while Omotenashi, of the Japanese space agency, contains the smallest lander in history, intended to study the environment of our natural satellite. The characterization of 2020GE, a near Earth asteroid with a diameter of 18 meters, will be carried out by Nea Scout , of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, towed by a solar sail. Like ArgoMoon, Team Miles (Tampa) is a technology demonstrator and will test mini plasma thrusters. Radiation will be investigated by BioSentinel (of the Californian Ames Research Center), which exploiting a unicellular yeast will measure the effects of a long exposure to deep-space radiation, EQUULEUS (University of Tokyo), a member of the study of the earth's plasmasphere, and CuSp (of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio), which will collect information on the solar wind and magnetic field, and will be released last, eight hours and three minutes after lift-off.

Arrival in lunar orbit and return

Orion's journey to the Moon will last approximately five days, during which all systems of the capsule and the European Service Module will be monitored. On Nov. 21, Artemis 1 will pass within 100 kilometers of the lunar surface, at which point the service module will fire its thrusters to place the system into its final orbit, which, hopefully, will put Orion into a stable orbit. It will be one of the so-called “Dro”, or Distant Retrograde Orbits. As the acronym suggests, that of Orion will be a "distant" orbit, i.e. one that is far away from our natural satellite: the mission profile, i.e. the "orbital itinerary", foresees that at the furthest point, Orion and the service module arrive more than 70,000 kilometers from the lunar surface. The orbit will also be "retrograde," which means that Orion will float around our satellite in the opposite direction to how the Moon does around the Earth.

In early December, the service module thrusters will be reactivated for put Orion on an exit path from the DRO, which will take the capsule to a second flyby of the Moon, this time at an altitude of 800 kilometers.

From that point, it will take about a week to get back to the Land. The re-entry into the atmosphere, after the separation of Orion from the European service module - which will be carried out at a few thousand kilometers of altitude - will take place at a speed of 11 kilometers per second, 32 times that of sound. It will be the friction that will produce a deceleration of the capsule up to 9g and, consequently, an increase in the temperature of the heat shield up to 2800 degrees centigrade. Then, at about eight kilometers above sea level (7.6), the Orion will open its 11 parachutes and if all goes as planned it will dive into the Pacific Ocean when it will be 6:40 on December 11 in Italy.

The future of Artemis

Artemis 2, the second mission of the program but the first "inhabited", is currently expected by the end of 2024. To date, the composition of the crew is not yet known. It is certain that on board the Orion, together with those that NASA will select among its candidates announced in 2020, there will also be an astronaut from the Canadian Space Agency and that ESA has an agreement with the American body for involvement of three Europeans in the future Artemis. A few weeks ago the director general of the European agency, the Austrian Josef Aschbacher, announced that the choice of the first European lunar pilgrims will concern the astronauts recruited in 2009, seven veterans among whom there are also Luca Parmitano and Samantha Cristoforetti, this last recently returned from the International Space Station after the Minerva mission .

" We are well aware of the opportunity ”, says Parmitano from Cape Canaveral, “ each of us has a little less than 50% chance of being part of one of the next missions, an idea that cannot fail to excite. At the moment, however, no European astronaut is in specific training for Artemis. I can only add that, together with our German colleague Alexander Gerst, we have been working on the revision of the part for two years of the Gateway, the station that will be launched around the Moon in a few years: he is taking care of the interior, I of the exterior of the outpost, to make sure that the systems are usable and suitable for the type of work and permanence of the crews. In my case, the main aspects are the extravehicular activity support systems. It is an important component, but it has nothing to do with training, which I believe will begin once the sequence of missions and that of the astronauts involved has been established. Then it is clear that I will give my best to make sure that, one day, the Orion is my Orion ”.

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