Artemis I: No Humans, But Rich In R&D

Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment.
Credit: NASA

HOUSTON—NASA’s Artemis I initial test flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule will be carrying a rich array of secondary science and technology payloads intended to demonstrate new space technologies and pave the way for a permanent human presence at the Moon and subsequent human exploration of Mars.

The planned 42-day mission without astronauts on board is set to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 8:33 a.m. EDT on Aug. 29, the opening of a 2-hr. launch window. Backup launch opportunities are on Sept. 2 and 5.

A hefty collection of secondary payloads have been developed through collaborations between multiple NASA field centers, commercial and international partners, academia and research institutions. And those payloads could pay dividends to every element of a broad space community, including those willing to embrace higher-risk, low-cost ventures afforded by small satellites. Artemis I counts 10 CubeSats set to deploy from the Orion stage adapter—which is part of the SLS Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), or SLS upper stage—after the first and second stages separate and the ICPS conducts a disposal burn about 3 1/2 hr. into flight.

The small satellite missions include efforts to characterize the cislunar solar and cosmic radiation environments that pose a threat to astronaut health and seek a deeper understanding of the solar activity responsible for disruptive space weather. They are also set to demonstrate low-cost, interplanetary propulsion technologies and scan the Moon for vast water ice deposits, a resource for long-term human life support and off-the-Earth production of chemical rocket propellants.

“With Artemis I we begin a new chapter in the exploration of the Moon and Mars,” Patrick Troutman, the strategy and architectures liaison for NASA’s Moon to Mars Architecture Development Office, told an Aug. 16 prelaunch news briefing. “The secondary science and technology payloads on this mission are going to tell us about the environment humans will travel through, and they are going to push that envelope with respect to what advanced technologies can do for these future missions.”

Secondaries aboard Orion will also help enlighten health experts about threats posed to human health by radiation hazards that astronauts will face once they travel beyond the Earth’s protective magnetic field.

Strapped in seats aboard Orion are three mannequins: “Moonikin Campos,” full-bodied and occupying the commander’s seat; and “Helga” and “ Zuhar,” a pair of less than full-bodied phantom torsos manufactured from materials that simulate the bones, soft tissues and organs of the adult female.

Helga and Zohar will be equipped with more than 5,600 passive and 34 active radiation sensors as part of an experiment sponsored by the German Aerospace Center, the Israel Space Agency and NASA. Unlike Helga, Zohar will be equipped with an AstroRad radiation protection vest as part of the Matroshka AstroRad Experiment (MARE) to measure the radiation environment and assess the protection afforded by the flexible vest.

The overall effort seeks to develop a detailed radiation dose mapping for the different female body organs.

NASA is in the process of updating its career radiation exposure limits for astronauts regardless of gender to 600 millisieverts, a threshold responsive to the fact that women possess organ tissues more susceptible to radiation-induced cancer.

 “So we are looking at a more conservative approach,” NASA’s Ramona Gaza, the MARE science team lead, told an Aug. 17 NASA Artemis I science news briefing. “While we are making this uniform across the population, moving outside of low Earth orbit requires more studies. As we explore space further, we hope to be able to gather more information on the differences.”

 “This is important because it allows us to take what we have learned from testing and from modeling and validate that against real-world performance so we can ensure the safety of all the future astronauts,” said Dustin Gohmert, NASA’s Orion crew survival systems project manager.

Seated close by, Moonikin will be dressed in an Orion Crew Survival System (OCSS) suit like the tailored garments that actual Artemis astronauts will don during launch, re-entry and other critical mission phases. The orange OCSS garments were developed to provide sufficient pressure, oxygen, thermal control and other life-sustaining functions. They could be worn continuously for up to six days—if for instance the Orion spacecraft lost pressure far from Earth.

“That is a feat we have never before attempted in the history of spacesuits,” Gohmert says.

Sensors behind Moonikin’s headrest and his seat will record acceleration and vibration forces throughout the mission. Five additional accelerometers within the capsule will gather data comparing the two forces between the capsule’s upper and lower seats.

Four other biological experiments aboard Orion will investigate the impact of deep space radiation on the nutritional value of plant seeds, fungi DNA repair, the adaptation of yeast and changes to the gene expression of algae. The containerized experiments have been provided by researchers from Michigan State, the Institute for Medical Research, Inc., the Naval Research Laboratory and the University of Colorado, Boulder. Their purpose is to study the effects of the deep space environment, including space radiation, on biological systems studied extensively in the past that will be retrieved post-flight for analysis to help better protect humans from deep space radiation.

The lineup of small satellites with biological and other similar objectives include:

—Biosentinel, which is equipped with biosensors to monitor the long-term effect of deep space radiation on two strains of yeast while beyond the Earth’s magnetic field, and especially the genetic mechanisms shared with human cells for DNA damage and repair.

—CubeSat for Solar Particles (CUSP), developed by the Southwest Research Institute and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will travel to a solar orbit to study radiation from the Sun hours before it reaches the Earth and help to determine whether a future network of similar small satellites would be of value in monitoring space weather.

—EQUilibriUm Lunar-Earth point 6U Spacecraft (EQUULEUS), a collaboration between the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and University of Tokyo, to image the Earth’s plasma sphere, the inner region of the magnetosphere which shrinks and expands with changes in space weather activity.

—Outstanding MOon exploration TEchnologies demonstrated by NAno Semi-Hard Impactor (OMOTENASHI), which is also JAXA sponsored, is  to demonstrate a small spacecraft lunar landing capability and deploy a sensor to measure the radiation environment near the Moon’s surface.

—Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper (LunaH-Map), an Arizona State University-led effort to assess from orbit over 60 days the distribution and concentrations of hydrogen across the Moon’s south pole, a region believed to be rich in subsurface water ice deposits.

—LunIR, a Lockheed Martin-led lunar flyby mission equipped with a miniature infrared sensor to gather data about the lunar surface, including material composition, thermal signatures, the presence of water ice and potential landing sites.

—Near Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout). Equipped with a solar sail, the NASA Marshal Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) spacecraft will embark on a two-year mission to gather high-resolution imagery of the asteroid  2020 GE, which at just less than 60 ft. across will be the smallest object in its class to be studied close-up.

—Lunar IceCube will navigate to a highly inclined elliptical lunar orbit with a low point of 62 mi. altitude. Propelled by electric propulsion, the Morehead State University-led mission will prospect for water in frozen liquid and vapor forms across the lunar surface, including how the volatile may be absorbed and released.

—ArgoMoon, an Italian Space Agency mission to demonstrate high-definition cameras and advanced imaging software to log initial imagery of the SLS upper stage from which the small satellites are being deployed and later the Earth and Moon. ArgoMoon is equipped with a micro propulsion system that relies on a green monopropellant and cold gas to provide attitude control and orbital maneuvering.

—TeamMiles, a NASA Cube Quest Challenge project led by Miles Space and software developer Fluid & Reason, LLC. TeamMiles is to demonstrate a plasma propulsion technology to travel autonomously out nearly 60 million mi. from Earth, which is well beyond the minimum distance between Earth and Mars.

Mark Carreau

Mark is based in Houston, where he has written on aerospace for more than 25 years. While at the Houston Chronicle, he was recognized by the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement Foundation in 2006 for his professional contributions to the public understanding of America's space program through news reporting.