CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA is about to launch its biggest rocket since the famous Saturn V took Apollo astronauts to the Moon — and that’s where this new mission is headed, too.
The agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is scheduled to lift off from Pad 39B here at Kennedy Space Center on Monday (August 29) the Artemis 1a mission that will send an Orion spacecraft on a six-week uncrewed journey to lunar orbit and back.
NASA plans to use the Artemis missions – named after Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology – to establish a permanent human presence on the moon and teach the agency how to get humans to Mars. Artemis 1 will be the first SLS launch and the second for NASA’s Orion capsule. The mission serves as a springboard for Artemis 2 and Artemis 3, which will return humans to lunar orbit and the lunar surface, respectively.
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Although Artemis 1 does not launch any crew, Orion will not be empty. In fact, aboard the capsule is a suite of experiments designed to help keep astronauts safe on future Artemis flights – a major focus being exposure to deep space radiation.
A total of 10 cubesats hitchhike aboard Artemis 1, three of which focus on radiation. These include a “space weather station” to measure particles and magnetic fields, an imaging device to be deployed at Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2 to measure radiation in the Earth’s plasmasphere, and ‘a study on single-celled yeast to observe the effects of deep -space radiation on living organisms.
Other cubesats will conduct studies of the lunar surface using infrared cameras to search for water, as well as hydrogen near the surface in permanently shadowed regions around the lunar south pole. A cubesat, dubbed NEA Scout, will deploy into cislunar orbit and spend two years using solar sail technology to intercept and capture images of 2020 GE, a asteroid less than 60 feet (18 meters) wide. (NEA stands for “near-Earth asteroid”.)
And strapped to Orion’s commander’s chair is NASA’s “Commander Moonikin Campos”, named for Arturo Campos, the head of the power supply subsystem of the Apollo 13 lunar module that helped bring this troubled mission safely back to Earth. Moonikin Campos is equipped with two internal radiation sensors, with additional sensors built into the dummy seat to measure vibration and acceleration forces during the mission.
The moonikin will also wear NASA’s new Orion Crew Survival System suit. The orange flight suit resembles similar suits used during spaceship missions but features a plethora of upgrades. In an interview with Space.com, Kirstyn Johnson, deputy team leader of Orion’s new suit at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, described some of these improvements.
“A lot of [the design] has changed based on how the Orion vehicle is now built and how we interact with the life support system,” Johnson said. The Orion flight suit is designed to be worn for up to six days and features a power tube access port on the helmet. so the astronauts don’t have to depressurize their suits to eat.
The suit’s familiar orange color is “iconic,” Johnson said, and makes it easier for rescue teams to spot astronauts in the event of an in-flight emergency. The suit launched on Artemis 1 fits the moonikin perfectly, and once assembly begins on the suits for real astronauts, each will be custom made for the wearer, as opposed to comparable one-size-fits-all suits from the era of shuttle.
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Two other torso-only dummies will accompany Moonikin Campos to facilitate radiation studies on board. Called “ghosts,” each is constructed from materials that mimic human bones and tissue, as well as organs unique to adult women, such as breast tissue and ovaries, which are susceptible to radiation damage.
The ghosts have their own names, Helga and Zohar, and each is equipped with over 6,000 passive radiation detectors and 34 active radiation detectors. The pair will be part of the Matroshka AstroRad Radiation Experiment (MARE), an international research partnership between the German Aerospace Center, the Israel Space Agency and NASA. Zohar will wear an AstroRad vest, designed to allow astronauts to leave the shelter areas of Orion and other spacecraft during solar radiation events while maintaining their protection. Helga will not be wearing the AstroRad vest, and the researchers plan to compare the differences in exposure rates between Helga and Zohar when Orion returns.
“The main objective of the MARE experiment is to evaluate the effectiveness of the AstroRad vest in protecting astronauts from solar energy particles…this will be done by comparing the radiation values absorbed by Zohar, shielded by the vest, to Helga’s,” Shirit explained. Schwartz, AstroRad product manager, during a press call Aug. 17.
Thomas Berger is the Principal Investigator of Helga and Zohar at the German Aerospace Center. He expects the data collected by the phantoms to aid in the continued development of the vest. “We will therefore, in principle, use the possibility of having these two phantoms in Orion to measure not only the radiation load table received, but also to test the possibility of new radiation protection measures,” Berger said during the call.
The Orion spacecraft itself is also equipped with several radiation detectors. The Radiation Area Monitor (RAM) consists of six passive sensors to record the total radiation exposure until the end of the mission. And the European Space Agency has placed five active dosimeters throughout the ship to monitor radiation levels in real time.
An essential part of Orion’s radiation exposure prevention systems includes the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Evaluator (HERA). HERA is designed to be part of Orion’s Caution and Warning System, which can alert astronauts to incoming solar particle events, allowing crews to preemptively seek shelter.
Radiation in deep space doesn’t just affect humans. Biology Experiment 1, which is also on board Orion, houses four surveys to study the effects of radiation on plants and fungi. Ye Zhang, a scientist with NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Plant Biology Program, joined the August 17 press call to explain the role of the experiment in advancing humanity’s quest. for long-term durability in space.
“These investigations aboard Artemis missions will help us develop future countermeasures and identify strategies for growing sustainable crops, and scientific advances that will ensure crew health and productivity,” Zhang said.
The experiment will focus on changes in the nutritional value of seeds, how fungi repair their DNA, the adaptability of yeasts and the expression of algae genes. Researchers hope that observing these different biological systems will lead to new innovations in humans’ ability to survive long-term on the moon and March.