A few days ago, somewhere in space, thousands of kilometers from Earth, one of those moments happened that can keep an entire planet in suspense. The huge antennas at NASA’s monitoring center in Goldstone, California, were suddenly out of action. communication with the ship Artemis I that flew over the Moon was completely lost.
“I remember it well because it was night and I was on duty,” recalls Pedro José Herráiz, an engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA). “If the ship had carried a crew, we would have spent four and a half hours without being able to communicate with them or be able to do anything to resolve it,” he recalls about the blackout, which occurred on Saturday the 3rd. Communication was reestablished without problems and the Artemis I , a mannequin-only mission, continued on its trajectory without incident. What could have been a historical scare became a mere anecdote. It was lucky that the blackout happened on this test mission.
The landing of the ship in the Pacific Ocean after a journey of 26 days and more than two million kilometers around the Moon is scheduled for this afternoon around seven, Spanish peninsular time. It is an important date, since that day marks the 50th anniversary of the last time that two astronauts — the military pilot Gene Cernan and the geologist Harrison Schmitt, from the apollo 17They stepped on the Moon.
The Artemis 1 has been launched as a test of the technology needed to take four crew members on a circumnavigation of the Moon voyage —Artemis II— in 2024 and, a year later, getting the first woman and the first black person to set foot on the satellite. Unlike Apollo, Artemis sees the Moon as an intermediate port until the final goal: to take astronauts to Mars at the end of the next decade. The project is named after the Greek goddess, the twin sister of the god Apollo.
Two days after the loss of communication, the Artemis I it fired its thrusters for several minutes before leaving lunar orbit and heading home. Her cameras captured the moment in which it exceeded the horizon of the satellite and behind it the Earth appeared in a crescent quarter.
Ahead lies the most critical moment of the mission and the main reason why it has been launched: to test the entry system into the atmosphere of our planet. “We have to make sure that we can bring the astronauts back safe and sound,” sums up Herráiz, who works as controller of the European service module of the Artemis Iwhich provides air, water, electricity, propulsion and temperature control to the crewed capsule, called Orion.
Today, Sunday, the service module will separate from the capsule and burn in the atmosphere as the Orion begins its landing sequence. In about 20 minutes it will go from almost 40,000 kilometers per hour – 32 times the speed of sound – to just 30 when it touches the surface of the sea. The friction of the air will be so brutal that it will heat the exterior of the ship to almost 3,000 degrees. One of the crucial tests of this mission is testing the thermal insulation that must maintain a stable temperature inside the capsule.
Eduardo García Llama, a 50-year-old engineer from Madrid who has been working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for more than two decades, takes stock of the mission so far. “He has evolved almost perfectly. It has gone so well for us that we have decided to do more tests throughout the flight to better characterize it ”, he highlights. “This whole mission has deep historical significance, but for me the most important moment was when Orion entered orbit around the Moon. It was the first time in 50 years that a ship in the space exploration program had done something like this, ”he highlights.
The mission control center comprises an entire building. García Llama and other engineers who have designed the ship are the “technical authority”. Its objective is to follow the mission and advise the “operational authority”, the team in charge of the flight control of the spacecraft throughout the mission.
Phillippe de Loo, head of the European service module program, already breathes easy: “We are almost done. From the part of the service module we can say that this mission has been an enormous success”.
Despite this, there has been a glitch being investigated: a stubborn shutdown signal that shouldn’t be there. The service module transforms the energy captured by the four solar panels into electricity. That current then goes to a “box” that distributes the current, explains the 61-year-old Belgian engineer. “Inside that box there are switches comparable to the fuses that are in any house and that go off when there is an overload. The problem is that one of those fuses is going off without our having given the order. There’s something causing that spurious signal and we don’t know exactly what it is yet. It is somewhat annoying, but it does not have any impact on the mission, ”he details.
The Artemis I It will return to Earth in two phases. At first, it will enter the outermost layers of the atmosphere, then it will change its trajectory to go back up and then it will make a second and final fall. With this maneuver, never done before, NASA wants to make sure that the spacecraft can land safely in any eventuality. It also allows you to fall into a much more specific area of the ocean. In the last part, the eleven parachutes that will slow it down and some inflatable rubber balls that will keep it face up despite the waves must be deployed.
NASA has decided that the capsule will land at a point in the Pacific 350 nautical miles —648 kilometers— south of the city of San Diego, near the island of Guadalupe. By then the USS Portland, the Navy ship in charge of recovering the capsule. The process will take about six hours. It is planned to leave the ship in the water with all electrical systems on for two hours to study heat dissipation and find out what the temperature is inside the ship.
Engineer Carlos García Galán, a 48-year-old from Madrid who works in the mission control center, highlights the importance of Artemis I: “We feel that we have made history. This is the first step of a new era.”
Once it is lifted out of the water, the mission team will extract reusable equipment, such as GPS and some antennas, from the capsule. Since it was a test mission, the Artemis I it was carrying more than 1,200 sensors, many more than will be carried by the program’s next pods, which will be largely reusable.
Manufacturing of a new Orion and another service module to launch the Artemis II in 2024. The takeoff date will depend on everything that has been learned with the previous mission. In this sense, the engineers are happy that everything went well despite the surprise loss of communication last week. Although future astronauts will be able to take control of the Orion if necessary, the ship is fully automatic. “Even if we lose all communication completely, the spacecraft has all the programming to return to Earth on its own,” highlights the Spanish engineer.
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