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

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

The Orion spacecraft will approach the moon on Monday.
Enlarge / The Orion spacecraft will approach the moon on Monday.


So far, NASA’s ambitious Artemis I mission seems to be going smoothly. The Orion spacecraft has caused a number of propellant burns, fly smoothly past the moonand will now test its capabilities in deep space.

Monday evening, after a flight around the moon, the spacecraft arrived returned images from the flyby back to Earth via the Deep Space Network. While there are no humans on board the Orion during this test flight, they will be during the next mission. The views of the moon from a manned spacecraft – the first in more than half a century – were stunning.

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

The rocket drives

On Monday, Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin also gave an update on the performance of the Space Launch System rocket at a press conference in Houston. “The results were eye-watering,” Sarafin said.

All separation events, including the solid rocket boosters and first and second stages, were nominal. Every performance measure in terms of thrust and accuracy was either on track or within less than 0.3 percent of what had been predicted, Sarafin said. In terms of landing the Orion spacecraft in the desired payload, the rocket was only three miles away, a remarkably small mistake.

Sarafin did acknowledge that the extreme thrust of the Space Launch System rocket caused some damage to the mobile launch tower that supports the rocket during the refueling and countdown. There was damage to the base of the launch stand where the boosters produce thrust and break some of the pneumatic lines that carry gases to the vehicle. The violent shaking of the launch also broke the tower’s entrance elevator and blew the doors off.

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

Move outward

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

The spacecraft’s next big step will come on Friday, when the main engine will burn for just over a minute to launch it into a distant retrograde orbit around the moon, far into space to test Orion’s ability to hold on. a constant indoor temperature and load other systems. Then on December 5, the craft will fly past the moon again before burning its engines home.

A view of the Orion capsule, the service module and the moon.
Enlarge / A view of the Orion capsule, the service module and the moon.


The December 5 flyby should yield even better images, since the vehicle’s closest approach during Monday’s flyby was on the far side of the Moon, which was in darkness at the time. The upcoming flyby will take place in daylight, near the Apollo landing sites, which may be imaged by the vehicle’s camera.

NASA plans to return Orion to Earth in the middle of the day on December 11, off the coast of Southern California. Sarafin said he and other senior officials working on Artemis I would remain nervous until then, even though everything has gone well so far.

“For me, there is relief that we are on our way,” he said. “But there is a heightened sense of awareness. We are on day six of a 26-day mission. I will rest well after landing and recovery is complete.”

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