Artemis 1 travels to the Moon. Luca Parmitano: "I hope that sooner or later it will be my Orion"

Artemis 1 travels to the Moon. Luca Parmitano: I hope that sooner or later it will be my Orion

Artemis 1 travels to the Moon. Luca Parmitano

With four other satellites, the ArgoMoon cubesat built for the Italian Space Agency by the Turin-based company Argotec regularly separated from the adapter mounted on the second stage of the Space Launch System. In the next few days it will be possible to see the videos and images it has taken - currently under embargo - relating to the correct performance of Artemis 1, the inaugural mission of the program named after Apollo's divine twin and destined to take us back to the Moon. The rest of the footage, from the Orion spacecraft, will come from the 12-camera system mounted inside and outside the capsule.

“We've been working on this moment since 2015” said David Avino, founder of Argotec and its managing director. The contribution of his company is the icing on the cake of the large Italian - and European - participation in Artemis, a program that aims to bring the first woman and the next man to the selenic surface on its third mission, Artemis 3, not before 2025.

ArgoMoon was the first to open the release sequence of the ten small satellites aboard the Space Launch System, the imposing NASA carrier rocket which two hours after the launch also released Orion, the new spaceship for deep space exploration. Driven by the second stage, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (or Icps), Orion will reach its destination in five days, after reaching a speed of 40 thousand kilometers per hour. It will then begin the sequence of grazing passages around the Moon, known as a flyby, and will return to Earth by diving off San Diego on 11 December.

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At the moment Artemis is proceeding in a "nominal" manner, i.e. as scheduled.

The Space Launch System on the ramp at Cape Canaveral a few days before launch (photo: NASA)

In front of a crowd of thousands of people who had gathered since the early hours of Wednesday morning in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the unmanned mission detached from Kennedy Space Center ramp 39b when Italy was 7:47 on November 16th. At that moment, the four RS-25 engines (an improved version of those of the Space Shuttle ) and the two solid propellant boosters propelled the 2608 tons of the new SLS into the sky, the 98-metre-high system which at the top mounts the Orion, designed to carry up to four astronauts.

Not this time, it's good to repeat it: apart from the Shaun the Sheep puppet from the European Space Agency, two female torsos and a mannequin for monitoring vibrations and cosmic radiation on the body human – they were named respectively Helga, Zohar and Moonikin Campos, the latter in tribute to an engineer of Apollo 13 - Artemis 1 does not carry people. Its main objective is to qualify all the systems involved, i.e. to prove that anything, from the ramp on Earth to the Orion in space, works as designed, and thus provide any useful indication for future program missions.

After the first crew destined to land, that of Artemis 3, is expected that many will return continuously to the Moon, this time, as long proclaimed by NASA, "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 led 12 men to walk on extra-terrestrial soil.

To see someone walking up there again, however, what will happen in the next few weeks will be crucial, while the journey of Artemis 1 will lead her to cover the over two million kilometers foreseen before ending with the ditching (in jargon , splashdown ). will follow each phase of the mission, also taking account of another important novelty with respect to the race that pushed the United States to the Moon for the first time: as remembered by ArgoMoon, Artemis, although led by the United States, it 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 ASI, has an important role, given that Leonardo, Thales Alenia Space and a series of small and medium-sized enterprises - such as Cbl Electronics, Aviotec, Criotec, Alfa Meccanica and Dtm Technologies - have contributed with the industries of nine other nations i to the European Service Module, which is currently supplying Orion with electricity, propulsion and thermal control (we wrote about it in greater detail in this article).

“Artemis 1 is the first brick of a much more large, a return to the Moon to stay, which will be followed by many other steps” said Giorgio Saccoccia, president of the Italian Space Agency. “ Our country could not fail to be part of it, because Italy has always had a very significant role in space exploration. For us, this mission, like the entire Artemis program, represents a very important dress rehearsal ”.

Interviewed a few minutes after the start of Orion's solitary flight, Luigi Pasquali also said he was particularly satisfied: "with the launch of the first Artemis mission, a new era has opened for space exploration" he declared the coordinator of Leonardo's space activities. “Returning to the Moon and establishing a permanent human presence is an ambitious but possible project. As a group we have demonstrated that we have all the necessary skills to be able to support the missions of European and global agencies and the development of a sustainable lunar economy: from the orbiting infrastructures and pressurized modules created by Thales Alenia Space, passing through enabling technologies such as robotics and sensors developed in Leonardo's factories, up to Telespazio's telecommunications and navigation services.”

What will happen now

While Orion travels towards the Moon, ArgoMoon has completed its main tasks. Operated by the two Control Rooms in Turin, the cubesat, a 10x30x20 cm parallelepiped, provided NASA with visual confirmation of the correct execution of the Icps operations, which at the time of freeing the satellites could not send signals to the Earth.

“ I had the real awareness of what would happen in these hours only by joining the company a few weeks ago ” - confides Avino – our technicians were calm, but ArgoMoon's tasks were unprecedented ”. Equipped with advanced and miniaturized subsystems within its 14 kilograms of total mass, thanks to a software based on artificial intelligence ArgoMoon has recognized the objects in its field of vision, autonomously carried out orbital and attitude maneuvers, to keep itself at the correct distance and capture images, which, encrypted, sent to the ground as soon as possible. “At that moment we were about 40,000 kilometers from the Earth - continues Avino - and once the position of the Icps was identified, ArgoMoon approached it to start filming it. It was a difficult operation, given that usually the commissioning of a satellite can take several days to verify each on-board system. Instead, ArgoMoon had a few minutes to start working, in which it had to activate its solar panels, figure out where it was and stabilize itself through a star-tracker, then intercept the Icps and pick it up from a safe distance. 500 meters".

The ArgoMoon cubesat photographed in the Argotec plants in Turin (photo: Argotec/Asi)

ArgoMoon was released with four other satellites, while the last five separated one at a time, at regular intervals up to eight hours after launch. 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. It is what many are beginning to refer to as the “ lunar economy ”.

“ It is certain that there are also economic reasons at the basis of such an ambitious program as Artemis, but in this phase it is important not to highlight them beyond what is right ” commented Massimo Comparini , managing director of Thales Alenia Space, an excellence in extraterrestrial manufacturing which, in addition to contributing to the Orion service module, is also involved in the construction of the  Gateway , the future station in lunar orbit. “ This time we're going back to the Moon to work on it and with two main objectives: first of all because what we'll learn will be fundamental to understanding how to go further. Anything we learn, for example on the construction of lunar infrastructure, will be essential for preparing exploratory missions in deep space, primarily on Mars. Then, of course, working on the Moon will mean exploiting its resources. However, we need to remember how much this can be useful to us on Earth as well. It is important that there is an economic dimension in perspective, but it is equally important not to underestimate the technical-scientific aspects and the collective benefits that this adventure will bring about in the coming years".

Others, in fact, were the cubesats on board 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 the sunlight reflected by the selenic surface, while Omotenashi , by the Japanese space agency, contains the smallest history lander, 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.

Arrival in lunar orbit and return

The journey to Orion's Moon will take less than week, a period during which all capsule and European Service Module systems will be monitored. Six days after launch, Artemis 1 will pass within 100 kilometers of the lunar surface and at that point ESM will turn on the thrusters to insert the system into its final orbit, which, if all goes smoothly, will allow Orion to enter a stable trajectory.

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