Science

NASA’s new rocket is blowing the doors off its mobile launch tower

NASA’s new rocket is blowing the doors off its mobile launch tower

Increase / The Orion spacecraft approaches the moon on Monday.

NASA

So far, NASA’s ambitious Artemis I mission appears to be going well. The Orion spacecraft performed a series of propulsive burns, flying smoothly past the moonand now they will test their capabilities in deep space.

On Monday evening, after flying around the moon, the spacecraft returned images fly back to Earth via the Deep Space Network. Although there are no humans on Orion during this test flight, they will be during its next mission. The view of the Moon from human spacecraft — the first in more than half a century — was brilliant.

“Today was a great day,” said Howard Hu, program manager for the Orion spacecraft, referring to the spacecraft’s performance and its images. “This is a dream for many of us who work at NASA. We were like kids in a candy store.”

The rocket rides

During a news conference in Houston on Monday, Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin also provided an update on the Space Launch System rocket’s performance. “The results were eye-watering,” Sarafin said.

All separation events, including solid rocket boosters and first and second stages, were nominal. Every performance indicator in terms of thrust and accuracy was either on target or within less than 0.3 percent of target, Sarafin said. As for dropping the Orion spacecraft in the desired payload, the rocket was only three miles away, an extremely small margin of error.

Sarafin acknowledged that the extreme thrust of the Space Launch System rocket caused some damage to the mobile launch tower that supports the rocket during fueling and countdown operations. The damage occurred at the base of the launch pad where the boosters produce thrust and broke some of the pneumatic lines that carry the gases to the vehicle. The strong tremors from the launch also broke the tower’s access elevator and blew off its doors.

Although some of this damage was greater than expected, Sarafin said all problems were fixable. “It will be ready for the Artemis II mission,” he said of the launch tower.

Movement outwards

Orion has so far exceeded expectations in space. The solar panels on its service module, provided by the European Space Agency, produced 22 percent more energy than expected, Hu said. All of the spacecraft’s thrusters, from its large main engine to its small reaction control system, performed as intended. A visual inspection of the vehicle, using cameras mounted on its solar arrays, found no concerns about micrometeoroid debris or other issues.

The spacecraft’s next big move will come on Friday, when its main engine will burn for just over a minute to place it in a far retrograde orbit around the moon, taking it far into deep space to test Orion’s ability to maintain a constant internal temperature and payload of other system. Then the vehicle will fly by the moon again on Dec. 5 before burning its engines back home.

A view of the Orion capsule, its service module and the Moon.
Increase / A view of the Orion capsule, its service module and the Moon.

NASA

The Dec. 5 flyby should provide even better images since, during Monday’s flyby, the vehicle’s closest approach was on the far side of the moon, which was in darkness at the time. The upcoming flyby will be in daylight, near the Apollo landing site, which can be captured by the vehicle’s camera.

NASA plans to return Orion to Earth in the middle of the day on Dec. 11, splashing down the coast of Southern California. Sarafin said he and other senior officials working on Artemis I will remain nervous until then, even though everything has been going well so far.

“It’s a relief to me that we’re on track,” he said. “But there’s a heightened sense of awareness. We’re on day six of a 26-day mission. I’ll be well rested after the crash and recovery is complete.”



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