Riding along on Artemis I, virtually

UPDATE: Next launch attempt might have to wait til October

NASA might need until mid-October to make its next attempt at the inaugural launch of a Space Launch System rocket, after deciding on Sept. 3 to roll the SLS back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. The decision came hours after the second scrub in a week of Artemis I, the mission to send an uncrewed Orion capsule around the moon. The next launch window opens Sept. 19, but NASA is unlikely to make that window, given that Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin told reporters that “it would likely be several weeks” before NASA can get the vehicle back to the pad, according to a livestream of the briefing. The scrub on Sept. 3 was due to a leak in a “quick disconnect” line that carries liquid hydrogen into the expendable rocket’s core stage. Technicians noticed the leak seven hours before the launch window was to open at 2:17 p.m. Eastern U.S. time. Multiple troubleshooting efforts were made “to try to get the leak to stop and reseal the connection,” NASA launch commentator Derrol Nail said during a live broadcast. The Sept. 3 scrub followed a postponement Aug. 29, when an engine failed to chill to the required temperature for launch.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The 25 cameras on the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule for the Artemis I mission are mainly for engineers who must analyze every aspect of this uncrewed lunar trial. But if all goes as planned, the public should still be treated to space scenes of unprecedented quality.

“Artemis I won’t feature much actual lunar photography, but you should expect some lunar streaming [during Orion’s fly by] as well as higher resolution recorded video,” NASA’s Matt Lemke, manager of Orion’s avionics, power and software, told me.

Those who tune into NASA’s livestream can expect to see a video selfie of the rocket ascending. Later will come scenes of Earth rising over the curve of the moon.

NASA could not conceivably livestream the entire mission, but it intends to mix live coverage with photos and recorded video throughout the flight, which will extend farther from Earth than any previous human-rated spacecraft, reaching 64,373 kilometers past the moon, before Orion and its service module loops back around the moon and toward Earth.

>> Next availability begins Sept. 19 followed by Oct. 17

>> View NASA’s livestream

>> View NASA’s Artemis updates

On launch day, live video looking down the stack of the rocket should be available during most of the ascent from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B, Lemke said.

NASA’s Beth St. Peter, the team leader for SLS imagery integration, offered a caveat: Should something go wrong, NASA might “pull the plug [on the video], and that’s because NASA wants to go off and understand that and preserve that data,” she says. “You don’t want folks to maybe make wrong interpretations of what happened and blow it out of proportion or whatever.”

But if all goes well, the show should be an impressive one. You will see the rocket’s twin solid rocket boosters burn white hot while its 64.6-meter-tall core stage and its four RS-25 engines consume 3.3 million liters of liquid propellant. All told, the Space Launch System will produce 39.1 million newtons of thrust at liftoff, equivalent to 160,000 Corvette engines, according to NASA.

In fact, the rocket will be the most powerful anyone has ever seen in action, although the record might not last long. SpaceX says its Starship Super Heavy will pack 75 million newtons, and NASA’s next version of SLS would bring 52.9 million newtons.

A critical event will occur about eight minutes into the flight. At a speed of Mach 23 and an altitude of 161 kilometers, the upper portion of the rocket will separate from the core to begin setting the stage for the 20-minute lunar “injection burn” by the RL-10 engine within the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage.  NASA isn’t sure how well its cameras will capture the separation or the burn that will begin at the 90-minute point.

After 16 minutes, the service module will extend its four solar arrays, each tipped with a “highly modified GoPro Hero 4 Black to provide a view of the array and various parts of the vehicle and space,” according to Lemke.

As for Orion’s hot deceleration into Earth’s atmosphere, engineers are especially anxious to see how its heat shield fares, given changes to its design after cracks were discovered during manufacturing of the shield flown in a 2014 test flight.

As Orion approaches Earth, still photos of the heat shield will be taken by one of four Pixelink 4MP USB cameras attached to the Crew Module Adapter, which connects the capsule to the service module.

Inside the capsule, six modified GoPro cameras will record stills and video up to 4K resolution. One camera looks through the docking hatch window, one through the pilot’s window, and another at the two mannequins, Helga and Zohar, who are sitting in for crew members. Zohar will wear a radiation protection vest so NASA can gauge how well it would shield future crew members.

As for the lunar surface, such images are not essential, but they are a significant goal, Lemke said.

“The agency knows that certain shots are high priority, including Earthrise, farthest distance from Earth and lunar flyby, but all depend on lighting, vehicle attitude and communication connectivity,” Lemke said.

But don’t expect the Earthrise scenes to rival the iconic photo taken by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968. “This time it will be rather different because of the short focal length lenses on the cameras that have been optimized to look at the vehicle, not deep space,” Lemke explained. For that reason, Earth will appear smaller than in the 1968 photo.

Three additional cameras in the capsule are associated with an artificial intelligence experiment to be run by Lockheed Martin, Amazon and Webex. In this Callisto experiment, a version of Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant will listen to commands given by mission control in Houston. Callisto won’t control the spacecraft, but it will turn on and change the color of the interior lights. If successful,  Callisto could be flown on crewed Artemis missions.

Also, footage of the interior of the capsule will be retrieved after splashdown to produce a three-dimensional recording with sound during reentry that will be turned into a virtual reality experience for the public, although Lockheed Martin has not said how or when it will be released.

“The recording should give us a sense of the vibrations, the shaking, maybe plasma trails in the windows,” said Rob Chambers, Lockheed Martin’s director of civil space strategy. “That may be the closest I get to experiencing reentry personally.”

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Riding along on Artemis I, virtually