The Europe-built service module powering the Orion spaceship during the Artemis 1 mission is nailing its debut lunar round trip, but a key system for keeping future human crews alive is not being tested during the flight.
The Orion capsule, which commenced the return leg of its groundbreaking journey on Thursday (Dec. 1), is currently not filled with breathable air, European aerospace giant Airbus told Space.com. According to Airbus, which built Orion's service module, the capsule's life support system will only be fully put through its paces in ground-based labs before the first flight with astronauts in 2024.
The Europe-built service module, responsible for propulsion and navigation, is the part of the spacecraft that sustains livable conditions inside Orion's crew compartment. The service module carries water the astronauts will need during the flight and generates breathable air by mixing oxygen and nitrogen that are stored in separate tanks.
During the Artemis 1 mission, however, engineers are only testing the nitrogen delivery system, but fortunately, neither Shaun the Sheep, the plush toy sent for the mission by the European Space Agency (ESA), nor the three dummies occupying the Orion cockpit, mind this fact.
"The oxygen and nitrogen delivery systems are very similar," Airbus spokesperson Ralph Heinrich told Space.com in an email. "We carry nitrogen on board Artemis 1 and will be testing the nitrogen delivery system during the flight that's ongoing at the moment. As the oxygen and nitrogen systems carry the same components, the test on the nitrogen distribution system will cover by similarity the oxygen delivery system. Furthermore, the oxygen system is being tested extensively on ground."
For Airbus, the Artemis 1 mission represents a major victory. The company was awarded a contract to develop the service module, a key component of the Orion spacecraft, by ESA, based on their previous experience building the Automated Transfer Vehicle, a cargo spacecraft which used to supply the International Space Station between 2008 and 2014. During its lunar sorties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, NASA built all of the required technology at home in the United States and didn't include any international partners.
The Artemis 1 service module is a culmination of ten years of work, and the Airbus team is delighted to see the craft performing with flying colors. So far, the service module has completed all of its key tasks flawlessly, including three engine burns, which first helped Orion to enter orbit around the moon, and then to subsequently leave lunar orbit to head back to Earth.
In a post-launch press conference, NASA admitted it detected 13 anomalies during the early phase of Orion's flight, including erratic readings from star trackers that the space capsule uses to navigate.
"Engineers will be looking into the data that's coming back from Orion so that every single system, every single component on board of the spacecraft can be tested in one way or another before the next mission," Sian Cleaver, the European Service module project manager at Airbus told Space.com in an interview. "So far, everything is going well. Of course, there'll be things that can be improved or changed. There were a few things that didn't work exactly as planned, but none of them were major issues."
Airbus engineers are receiving a stream of data from the spacecraft including "pressure, temperature, valve position data and currents and voltages" to monitor its health, Airbus wrote in an email.
"We look at all the data throughout the whole mission, and especially during major events, like main engine firings," Airbus wrote. "[We] make sure the system is operated within its expected and qualified range. The data is also being stored continuously, to allow post flight analyses and prepare for the next Artemis missions."
Airbus has already delivered the next service module to NASA for testing and mating with the crew compartment for the Artemis 2 mission,which will take humans to orbit around the moon for the first time since the final Apollo flight in 1972. That mission is expected to launch no earlier than 2024, if all goes according to plan. The company has also nearly completed the assembly of the third service module, which will power the Artemis 3 mission that is expected to involve a lunar landing no earlier than 2025.
The bones of the fourth service module have also been put together and plans are in place to begin work on the fifth specimen later this month. These service modules will cover Artemis missions 4 and 5, which are expected to take off to the moon toward the end of this decade. By that time, the Lunar Gateway space station will be put together in orbit around the moon, opening a new era of regular human visits to Earth's companion.
"It really feels like a bit of a production line going on now at our facility," Cleaver said. "It's really exciting. The program is really, really moving now. We have a plan for the next 10 years, and there are also clear messages from NASA and ESA that the moon is only the first step and that the technology will be used to eventually go to Mars."
Airbus is under contract to build the service module number six and is currently negotiating another batch of three. The service modules are single-use only and will detach from the crew capsule before it enters Earth's atmosphere during its return.
The Artemis 1 mission lifted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16. The mission was a debut not only for Orion, but also for the Space Launch System mega rocket that lofted it into space. During the mission, Orion passed only 80 miles (130 kilometers) above the moon's surface, and also broke a record for the greatest distance from Earth ever achieved by a human-rated spacecraft. By getting as far as 270,000 miles (435,000 km) from the planet, Orion surpassed the previous maximum held by the Apollo 13 mission. That mission, however, only got that far as part of a rescue operation designed to bring it back home after an onboard explosion crippled the spacecraft.
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Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.