Riding along on Artemis I, virtually


Nov. 16, 9:35 a.m. Eastern U.S. time: The SLS upper stage completed the 18-minute translunar injection burn at 3:32 a.m. and the Orion capsule separated minutes later, firing its auxiliary thrusters to continue its journey to lunar orbit. The capsule, with its mannequin and two dummies on board in place of astronauts, is expected to come within 100 kilometers of the moon on Nov. 22 and return to Earth on Dec. 11, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean under parachutes.

Follow NASA’s updates here.

Nov. 16, 3 a.m. Eastern U.S. time: NASA’s first Space Launch System rocket thundered off a Cape Canaveral launch pad in Florida at 1:47 a.m. local time to start the Artemis I mission around the moon, setting off car alarms and lighting up the night sky above Kennedy Space Center. Eight minutes later, the Orion capsule and SLS upper stage separated from the rocket’s core stage in preparation for the crucial translunar injection burn that will set Orion on its trajectory around the moon.

“We are all part of something incredibly special: the first launch of Artemis, the first step to returning our country to the moon, and to Mars,” NASA Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson said to the firing room team after launch. “What you’ve done today will inspire generations to come.” 

It was the first such launch of a human-rated spacecraft destined for a lunar mission since the final Apollo mission, Apollo 17, in 1972. If all goes as planned, over the next 25 days Orion will travel 2 million kilometers before entering Earth’s atmosphere at 39,428 kph, or Mach 32 on Dec. 11.

Nov. 14: NASA plans to make its next attempt to launch the Space Launch System rocket on early Wednesday morning, Nov. 16. The two-hour launch window opens at 1:04 a.m. local time at Cape Canaveral. The agency determined that Hurricane Nicole caused “very minor damage such as loose caulk and tears in weather coverings” while the vehicle stood at Launch Pad 39B, for what would be the inaugural launch of the SLS design and the start of the Artemis I uncrewed mission around the moon by an Orion capsule. NASA officials plan to brief the media about launch preparations at 6 p.m. Eastern U.S. time today.

Nov. 8: NASA plans to keep the SLS rocket and its Orion capsule at Launch Pad 39B during tropical cyclone Nicole, noting that the “current forecasts predict the greatest risks at the pad are high winds that are not expected to exceed the SLS design.” [This entry was updated for clarity after posting.]

Oct. 12: NASA is targeting Nov. 14 for the next launch attempt of the first SLS rocket. The agency determined that rolling SLS back to the Vehicle Assembly Building in late September to protect the rocket and Orion capsule from the approaching Hurricane Ian made it impossible to meet the October launch windows. The 69-minute launch window opens at 12:07 a.m. Eastern U.S. time.

Sept. 3: NASA might need until mid-October to make its next attempt at the inaugural launch of an SLS 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.

Aug. 26 original story

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.

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