Meet Orion, Artemis’ ship that will take people to the moon

When it lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center, the Artemis 1 mission rocket will carry Orion, NASA’s next-generation spacecraft, into space.

The American company Lockheed Martin was responsible for the design and construction of the spacecraft, from the contract with the space agency with an initial value of 4.6 billion dollars. The agreement calls for the construction of at least six spacecraft to take astronauts to the Moon – and the contract can be expanded to a total of 12 spacecraft by the end of 2030.

The idea is that the spacecraft will be used on deep space missions this decade and into the next, taking astronauts to the Moon as well as the Gateway Lunar Space Station.

The design is reminiscent of the capsules used during the Apollo program, with the difference that Orion is larger and, of course, more modern.

During the journey to the moon, the crew module, where the astronauts live and work, will be connected to a service module – developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and built by Airbus – that will provide power, propulsion and thermal control. to the ship.

Orion’s crew module, the only part of the huge Artemis 1 rocket that returned safely to Earth. Image: Lockheed Martin/Discovery

Construction of the ship Artemis

Orion is 3.3 meters high, 5 meters in diameter and weighs 9.4 tons at takeoff. The capsule has a habitable volume of 9 m³ and can carry up to four astronauts – not three, like the Apollo spacecraft.

The spacecraft is constructed from seven large pieces of aluminum alloy, joined together in a conical shape using a friction welding technique. Initially, the project required 33 welded points, but the engineers managed to reduce that number to seven, saving about 300 kg of weight.

It will be capable of space missions lasting up to 21 days, without the need to dock with another spacecraft or space station. Orion will have compact, private bathrooms for men and women, fitness equipment to help prevent bone atrophy and spacesuits that can keep the crew alive for six days in the event of a cabin depressurization.

Astronauts in training inside the Orion spacecraft module.  Image: NASA/Disclosure
Astronauts in training inside a model of the Orion spacecraft. Image: NASA/Disclosure

The interior also has a number of under-seat lockers to store food, medical equipment, emergency equipment, among other things.

In the Artemis 1 mission, only one seat was placed on board, in which there was a mannequin the size of a man’s body. It will carry a variety of sensors to measure the radiation, acceleration and vibrations experienced by the astronauts during their journey to the moon from Artemis 2.

The module also has an independent propulsion system consisting of 12 small motors, which provide translation and rotational control of the spacecraft. When Orion separates from the service module—prior to atmospheric re-entry—these engines control the spacecraft’s return to Earth.

As much as the craft are not reusable – like those built by SpaceX – NASA intends to reuse some internal components at least once, such as flight computers, crew seats, control panels, among other electronic equipment on board.

The Orion crew module (above) is integrated into the service module developed by ESA. Image: Lockheed Martin/Discovery

NASA’s new spacecraft software

According to the US space agency, Orion’s computers have more than 750,000 lines of code, which control the spacecraft’s various systems, including power, communications, guidance, navigation, control, thermal management, instruments and propulsion.

In the case of Artemis 1, the software is fully automated and can handle several potential failures without the support of technicians on Earth, including interference caused by radiation.

In the event of a complete failure of all flight computers during the re-entry procedure, the Orion has a backup computer to control the spacecraft’s safe landing. The agency’s goal is to extend this software to all phases of flight in the future.

Test of fire during Artemis 1

The first mission of the Artemis program aims to test Orion’s performance in deep space. Communication and navigation systems will be tested during the trip.

However, the biggest test will be on the heat shields, which should protect the spacecraft during its return to Earth, withstanding temperatures up to 2,760º C. This high heat is generated by friction with the air, when the spacecraft returns from the Moon at a speed of almost 24 thousand km/ h.

According to NASA, no ground-based aerodynamic or aerothermal test facility can recreate the conditions this heat shield will experience during Artemis 1.

The shield consists of 186 blocks of Avcoat, a reformulated version of the material used in the Apollo pods – which uses novolac epoxy resin with special additives and arranged in fiberglass honeycombs. Avcoat is attached to the titanium skeleton and finished with a layer of epoxy paint.

In fact, Lockheed Martin claims to have developed this new shield with not only missions to the moon in mind, but potential trips to Mars as well.

Lockheed Martin technicians test the heat shield of the Orion capsule. Image: Lockheed Martin/Discovery

In the rest of the ship, 1,300 thermal protection tiles are used, produced from materials based on silicon fibers. They are modernized versions of the plates that were used on old spacecraft, and serve to protect astronauts not only from temperature changes in space, but also from possible impacts of micrometeorites.

If the spacecraft is hit by a large solar storm, NASA has already foreseen a special procedure that consists of creating a kind of barricade on Orion, protecting the crew from some of the high doses of radiation.

NASA will test the new maneuver for the first time

Upon returning to the planet, NASA intends to experiment with a different re-entry maneuver on the Artemis program flights. Instead of diving directly into the atmosphere, as in the Apollo missions, Orion will “bounce” into Earth’s upper atmosphere — much like a rock bounces when dropped in a lake — before finally re-entering and finally descending.

The advantage of this type of maneuver is that it is more accurate and does not depend on the date or point of departure of the Moon. In addition, it reduces the G-force astronauts are exposed to during re-entry, as well as reducing the high temperatures the heat shields will be exposed to.

The concept is not new, but the maneuver was not used during the Apollo program, since the guidance and navigation technology we have today did not yet exist, much less the computing power to use it.

After the re-entry process, the capsule uses a system that includes 11 parachutes, which will be deployed in sequence from an altitude of 23,000 feet (about 7,000 meters), reducing the craft’s speed from 523 km/h to 32 km/h. The Artemis 1 mission will land in the Pacific Ocean about 40 days after liftoff.

Lockheed Martin released the video below, which highlights the technological developments behind the Orion spacecraft.

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