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7 Things We Learned From NASA’s Wildly Successful Artemis 1 Mission

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Orion’s view of the Moon on December 5, the 20th day of the mission.
Photo: NASA

NASA’s Artemis 1 mission concluded with Orion’s immaculate splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday. Seemingly a billion years—and most assuredly a few billion dollars—in the making, the mission ended far too quickly for space junkies like me. But in those short few weeks, it managed to nail all its primary objectives. Artemis 1 was strictly meant as a demonstration mission, a way for NASA to test its new SLS megarocket and Orion spacecraft.

It’s still early days, but the mission appears to have been a big success. And because NASA achieved its major goals, we can talk about what went right, what went wrong, and what the successful mission means for the future. Here are seven things we learned from Artemis 1.

1. NASA’s Artemis Moon plans are officially on track

For years, I’ve had to write about NASA’s “upcoming Artemis missions” or “pending trips to the Moon,” but with the success of Artemis 1, it’s fair to say that the space agency’s next era of exploration has officially begun. Artemis—we are officially in you.

NASA’s SLS on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on November 4, 2022.
NASA’s SLS on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on November 4, 2022.
Photo: NASA/Kim Shiflett

I have little doubt that NASA’s current timelines for the Artemis missions, including a crewed landing in 2025, are wholly unrealistic. The space agency’s auditor general has said as much. Anticipated launch dates will repeatedly be pushed back for various reasons, whether it be on account of overdue Moonsuits, lunar landers, or any other element required for these increasingly complex missions.

It’s doubtful that Congress will sabotage or otherwise scuttle NASA’s Artemis plans by withholding funds, but as the holder of the purse strings, it remains the chamber’s prerogative to do so. That said, China is full steam ahead on its plans to send its taikonauts to the lunar surface during the mid-2030s. The U.S. has already put humans on the Moon, but China’s space ambitions are spawning a renewed space race, with some experts saying “we’re falling behind.”

2. SLS is a beast

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket finally roared to life on November 16, sending an uncrewed Orion on its historic journey around the Moon. Blasting off with 8.8 million pounds of thrust, it’s now the most powerful operational rocket in the world and the most powerful rocket ever built. The space agency finally has its megarocket, a necessity of the Artemis program, which seeks to land humans on the Moon later this decade and place a space station, called Gateway, in lunar orbit.

SLS blasting off on November 16, 2022.
SLS blasting off on November 16, 2022.
Photo: Terry Renna (AP)

“The first launch of the Space Launch System rocket was simply eye-watering,” Mark Sarafin, Artemis mission manager, said in a November 30 statement, adding that the rocket’s performance “was off by less than 0.3 percent in all cases across the board.” The rocket program was marred by budget overruns and delays, but SLS ultimately did exactly what it was supposed to do—while dropping our jaws in the process.

3. SLS wreaks havoc to the launch pad—and the pocket books

SLS is awesome, no doubt, but it comes with certain complications.

The launch vehicle’s core stage runs on a mixture of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the same super-leaky propellant that caused major headaches during the Space Shuttle era. Kennedy Space Center ground teams battled hydrogen leaks in advance of the rocket’s inaugural launch, resulting in multiple scrubs and an impromptu cryogenic tanking test in September. The team learned that the finicky rocket requires a kinder, gentler approach to tanking, but hydrogen leaks may continue to pose a problem during future launches.

When the megarocket did finally manage to blast off, it caused significant damage at the launch pad, including new scorch marks, missing paint, battered nitrogen and helium supply lines, and fried cameras. At liftoff, the powerful shockwave also tore off the tower’s elevator doors. NASA officials downplayed the damage, saying some of it was expected. Regardless, the mobile launcher is now in the Vehicle Assembly Building undergoing repairs.

Finally, the rocket, which first emerged as an idea 12 years ago and cost $23 billion to develop, is fully expendable, meaning each SLS rocket must be built from scratch. NASA inspector general Paul Martin expects each launch of SLS to cost upwards of $4.1 billion, “a price tag that strikes us as unsustainable,” he told Congress earlier this year.

SpaceX is currently building its own megarocket, called Starship, which promises to be fully reusable and more powerful than SLS (though to be clear, and as NASA administrator Bill Nelson has stated on numerous occasions, the space agency has no intention of launching Orion with Starship). NASA’s rocket will become an anachronism the moment that Elon Musk’s rocket takes flight. So while SLS’s debut performance was exemplary, the Artemis program as a whole is far from ideal in terms of its execution.

4. Deep space is unwelcoming place for cubesats

SLS, in addition to Orion, delivered 10 cubesats to space. These secondary Artemis 1 payloads went off on their various journeys, but only six of them are functioning as intended, including Arizona State University’s LunaH-Map mission, NASA’s BioSentinel, and Japan’s EQUULEUS mission.

Artist’s impression of Lockheed Martin’s LunIR cubesat, which failed shortly after launch.
Artist’s impression of Lockheed Martin’s LunIR cubesat, which failed shortly after launch.
Image: Lockheed Martin

The same cannot be said for the other four, namely Southwest Research Institute’s CuSP (CubeSat for Solar Particles), Lockheed Martin’s LunIR, NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout), and Japan’s tiny OMOTENASHI lunar lander—all of which failed shortly after launch. Each failed for different reasons, such as the inability to establish deep space communications, issues with battery power, and deficient designs. The high attrition rate served as a potent reminder: Space is hard, and deep space is even harder.

5. Orion is humanity’s most impressive spaceship yet

We’ve witnessed plenty of capable spacecraft over the years. NASA’s Apollo Command and Service Module was really cool, as was the Space Shuttle. Russia’s Soyuz continues to be super reliable, while SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is the epitome of modern spacefaring. These spaceships are all great, but NASA’s Orion is now, in my opinion, the most impressive crew-friendly vehicle ever built.

Orion and Earth, as imaged on December 3, 2022.
Orion and Earth, as imaged on December 3, 2022.
Photo: NASA

The partially reusable Orion consists of a crew module, designed by Lockheed Martin, and the expendable European Service Module, built by Airbus Defence and Space. The system performed exceptionally well during the entire Artemis 1 mission, save for some minor annoyances (which I’ll get to in just a bit). Orion traveled to the Moon, successfully entered into its target distant retrograde orbit, performed a pair of close lunar flybys, and managed to survive skip reentry and splashdown. Each and every course correction maneuver was pulled off without difficulty, with Orion using less fuel than expected.

More on this story: NASA Wants More Spacecraft for Its Upcoming Artemis Moon Missions

The uncrewed Orion clocked over 1.3 million miles during its journey, while establishing a pair of new milestone records. The spacecraft flew to a maximum distance of 268,554 miles (432,194 kilometers) from Earth—the farthest distance traveled by any crew-rated vehicle. And when it came home, Orion slammed into the atmosphere at speeds reaching Mach 32, marking the fastest return velocity in history for a passenger spacecraft. The capsule’s 16.5-foot-wide heat shield protected Orion from the 5,000-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures experienced during reentry.

The next big test for Orion will be Artemis 2, for which it will need to transport four astronauts around the Moon and back. But the upcoming Artemis missions are only the beginning, as NASA plans to use Orion for crewed trips to Mars one day.

6. Orion still needs some tweaking

Artemis 1 unfolded as planned, but that’s not to say it wasn’t without problems. Mike Sarafin, the mission manager, called these anomalies “funnies” throughout Orion’s journey, but I doubt the team found them very amusing.

During the early days of the mission, Orion’s star tracker, which assists with navigation, was “dazzled” by Orion’s thruster plumes. “The thrusters were being picked up by the star tracker because it was thrusting over the field of view of the star tracker by design,” Sarafin told reporters on November 18. “The light was hitting the plume and it was picking it up,” which confused the software. Ultimately, nothing was really wrong with the star tracker, and the team was able to move forward once the problem was recognized.

One of four solar arrays that successfully powered Orion during its 25.5-day mission.
One of four solar arrays that successfully powered Orion during its 25.5-day mission.
Photo: NASA

The scariest moment happened on November 23, the seventh day of the mission, when ground controllers temporarily and unexpectedly lost contact with the spacecraft for 47 minutes. NASA isn’t sure what caused the issue.

During the final days of the mission, one of Orion’s four limiters suddenly switched off. This limiter, which is responsible for downstream power, was successfully turned back on before the glitch was able to cause serious problems. The anomaly might be related to a similar issue experienced earlier, when a component in the service module spontaneously opened without a command. Seems as though Orion brought a gremlin along for the journey.

Lastly, one of Orion’s phased array antennas exhibited “degraded behavior” during the final days of the mission, as Sarfin told reporters on December 8. This resulted in “low performance” and some “communication problems,” but nothing that endangered the mission, he said. This issue, among others, will be scrutinized and hopefully addressed in time for Artemis 2, currently planned for 2024.

7. The Moon remains a desolate and beautiful place

Images beamed back from the lunar environment served as a reminder that the Moon, though dim and stark, remains an intriguing and visually fascinating place. Sure, the Apollo missions brought back unprecedented images of the lunar landscape, but it’s still the Moon—our Moon—a place we don’t tend to visit very often (with all due respect to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, in operation since 2009, and China’s Chang’e 4 lander Yutu-2 rover, which reached the far side in early 2019).

A high-resolution image of the Moon, as captured by Orion on December 7, 2022.
A high-resolution image of the Moon, as captured by Orion on December 7, 2022.
Photo: NASA

Artemis 1 was like visiting an old friend, though an old friend filled with craters, mountain ranges, and an assortment of other fascinating surface features. What’s more, the lunar environment is a place where we can expect the unexpected, including impossibly picturesque Earthrises illuminated by the Sun. So yes, the Moon remains a worthwhile destination, as we set our sights on the next exciting phase of human space exploration.

More: See the Best Images from the Thrilling Artemis 1 Splashdown

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Future Space Telescopes Could be 100 Meters Across, Constructed in Space, and Then Bent Into a Precise Shape – Universe Today

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It is an exciting time for astronomers and cosmologists. Since the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers have been treated to the most vivid and detailed images of the Universe ever taken. Webb‘s powerful infrared imagers, spectrometers, and coronographs will allow for even more in the near future, including everything from surveys of the early Universe to direct imaging studies of exoplanets. Moreover, several next-generation telescopes will become operational in the coming years with 30-meter (~98.5 feet) primary mirrors, adaptive optics, spectrometers, and coronographs.

Even with these impressive instruments, astronomers and cosmologists look forward to an era when even more sophisticated and powerful telescopes are available. For example, Zachary Cordero 
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently proposed a telescope with a 100-meter (328-foot) primary mirror that would be autonomously constructed in space and bent into shape by electrostatic actuators. His proposal was one of several concepts selected this year by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for Phase I development.

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Corder is the Boeing Career Development Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and a member of the Aerospace Materials and Structures Lab (AMSL) and Small Satellite Center. His research integrates his expertise in processing science, mechanics, and design to develop novel materials and structures for emerging aerospace applications. His proposal is the result of a collaboration with Prof. Jeffrey Lang (from MIT’s Electronics and the Microsystems Technology Laboratories) and a team of three students with the AMSL, including Ph.D. student Harsh Girishbhai Bhundiya.

Their proposed telescope addresses a key issue with space telescopes and other large payloads that are packaged for launch and then deployed in orbit. In short, size and surface precision tradeoffs limit the diameter of deployable space telescopes to the 10s of meters. Consider the recently-launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the largest and most powerful telescope ever sent to space. To fit into its payload fairing (atop an Ariane 5 rocket), the telescope was designed so that it could be folded into a more compact form.

This included its primary mirror, secondary mirror, and sunshield, which all unfolded once the space telescope was in orbit. Meanwhile, the primary mirror (the most complex and powerful ever deployed) measures 6.5 meters (21 feet) in diameter. Its successor, the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor (LUVOIR), will have a similar folding assembly and a primary mirror measuring 8 to 15 meters (26.5 to 49 feet) in diameter – depending on the selected design (LUVOIR-A or -B). As Bhundiya explained to Universe Today via email:

“Today, most spacecraft antennas are deployed in orbit (e.g., Northrop Grumman’s Astromesh antenna) and have been optimized to achieve high performance and gain. However, they have limitations: 1) They are passive deployable systems. I.e. once you deploy them you cannot adaptively change the shape of the antenna. 2) They become difficult to slew as their size increases. 3) They exhibit a tradeoff between diameter and precision. I.e. their precision decreases as their size increases, which is a challenge for achieving astronomy and sensing applications that require both large diameters and high precision (e.g. JWST).”

While many in-space construction methods have been proposed to overcome these limitations, detailed analyses of their performance for building precision structures (like large-diameter reflectors) are lacking. For the sake of their proposal, Cordero and his colleagues conducted a quantitative, system-level comparison of materials and processes for in-space manufacturing. Ultimately, they determined that this limitation could be overcome using advanced materials and a novel in-space manufacturing method called Bend-Forming.

This technique, invented by researchers at the AMSL and described in a recent paper co-authored by Bhundiya and Cordero, relies on a combination of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) deformation processing and hierarchical high-performance materials. As Harsh explained it:

“Bend-Forming is a process for fabricating 3D wireframe structures from metal wire feedstock. It works by bending a single strand of wire at specific nodes and with specific angles, and adding joints to the nodes to make a stiff structure. So to fabricate a given structure, you convert it into bending instructions which can be implemented on a machine like a CNC wire bender to fabricate it from a single strand of feedstock. The key application of Bend-Forming is to manufacture the support structure for a large antenna on orbit. The process is well-suited for this application because it is low-power, can fabricate structures with high compaction ratios, and has essentially no size limit.”

In contrast to other in-space assembly and manufacturing approaches, Bend-Forming is low-power and is uniquely enabled by the extremely low-temperature environment of space. In addition, this technique enables smart structures that leverage multifunctional materials to achieve new combinations of size, mass, stiffness, and precision. Additionally, the resulting smart structures leverage multifunctional materials to achieve unprecedented combinations of size, mass, stiffness, and precision, breaking the design paradigms that limit conventional truss or tension-aligned space structures.

In addition to their native precision, Large Bend-Formed structures can use their electrostatic actuators to contour a reflector surface with sub-millimeter precision. This, said Harsh, will increase the precision of their fabricated antenna in orbit:

“The method of active control is called electrostatic actuation and uses forces generated by electrostatic attraction to precisely shape a metallic mesh into a curved shape which acts as the antenna reflector. We do this by applying a voltage between the mesh and a ‘command surface’ which consists of the Bend-Formed support structure and deployable electrodes. By adjusting this voltage, we can precisely shape the reflector surface and achieve a high-gain, parabolic antenna.”

An arrangement of 3 exoplanets to explore how the atmospheres can look different based on the chemistry present and incoming flux. Credit: Jack H. Madden used with permission

Harsh and his colleagues deduce that this technique will allow for a deployable mirror measuring more than 100 meters (328 ft) in diameter that could achieve a surface precision of 100 m/m and a specific area of more than 10 m2/kg. This capability would surpass existing microwave radiometry technology and could lead to significant improvements in storm forecasts and an improved understanding of atmospheric processes like the hydrologic cycle. This would have significant implications for Earth Observation and exoplanet studies.

The team recently demonstrated a 1-meter (3.3 ft) prototype of an electrostatically-actuated reflector with a Bend-Formed support structure at the 2023 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech Conference, which ran from January 23rd to 27th in National Harbor, Maryland. With this Phase I NIAC grant, the team plans to mature the technology with the ultimate aim of creating a microwave radiometry reflector.

Looking ahead, the team plans to investigate how Bend-Forming can be used in geostationary orbit (GEO) to create a microwave radiometry reflector with a 15km (9.3 mi) field of view, a ground resolution of 35km (21.75 mi) and a proposed frequency span of 50 to 56 GHz – the super-high and extremely-high frequent range (SHF/EHF). This will enable the telescope to retrieve temperature profiles from exoplanet atmospheres, a key characteristic allowing astrobiologists to measure habitability.

“Our goal with the NIAC now is to work towards implementing our technology of Bend-Forming and electrostatic actuation in space,” said Harsh. “We envision fabricating 100-m diameter antennas in geostationary orbit with have Bend-Formed support structure and electrostatically-actuated reflector surfaces. These antennas will enable a new generation of spacecraft with increased sensing, communication, and power capabilities.”

Further Reading: NASA

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Amateur N.S. astronomer captures magic of the green comet – CBC.ca

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Nova Scotia·Audio

Tim Doucette with the Deep Sky Eye Observatory in southwestern Nova Scotia has captured a dazzling time-lapse of the green comet that’s making a rare pass near Earth.

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) making its closest approach to Earth on Wednesday

Tim Doucette captured a two-hour time-lapse of the green comet over the weekend. (Tim Doucette/Deep Sky Eye Observatory)

An amateur astronomer from southwestern Nova Scotia has captured a dazzling time-lapse of the green comet that’s making a rare pass near Earth.

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The last time the comet was this close to our planet was 50,000 years ago. Many Canadians are looking up at the stars this week as the comet gets ready to make its closest approach on Wednesday.

Tim Doucette with the Deep Sky Eye Observatory near Yarmouth, N.S., is among them.

He took a two-hour time-lapse of the comet during the early-morning hours of Jan. 28.

“If you’ve got a telescope and you look closely at the comet and the background stars, it’s travelling relative in our sky about one-quarter degrees per hour,” he told CBC Radio’s Mainstreet Halifax. “So within a few minutes you can see that the comet’s actually making motion in the night sky.”

You can listen to Doucette’s full interview with host Jeff Douglas here:

Mainstreet NS8:09Astronomer Tim Doucette captures images of rare green comet

A rare green comet that orbits our sun once every 50,000 years is now in our neighbourhood, and already an amateur astronomer has captured dazzling imagery of it.

Amateur N.S. astronomer captures magic of the green comet

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Tim Doucette with the Deep Sky Eye Observatory in southwestern Nova Scotia has captured a dazzling time-lapse of the green comet that’s making a rare pass near Earth.

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With files from CBC Radio’s Mainstreet Halifax

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Kemptville author’s book being sent to the moon

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One of Michael Blouin’s books is going to be launched into space on a microdisk and stay on the surface of the moon. (Submitted by Michael Blouin)

An author from North Grenville, Ont., is going to be part of a small club of authors whose works will be sent to the moon.

Michael Blouin of Kemptville says he’s been interested in space travel since the Apollo 11 mission that landed humans on the moon for the first time.

To be part of a group of hundreds of authors having their work immortalized within the vast expanse of space has him “gobsmacked.”

“I take comfort in the fact that no matter what happens, it looks like my books … will survive and be there,” he said.

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“I sometimes wake up at night and say ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to the moon. Wow.’ It’s kind of amazing.”

How it came to be

Blouin said he’s been a lifelong fan of NASA and space exploration, so when the opportunity to get his work in the Writers on the Moon project came up, he had to take it.

Then around the deadline to apply, his house burned down.

Amid the chaos of not having anywhere to live and then moving into his son’s house, he realized he’d missed his chance.

“I had missed the deadline to apply for this program for books to go to the moon by 12 hours and I was just kicking myself,” he said.

“I lost everything and now I’d missed out on my chance to do something I’d always dreamed about doing.”

Luckily a friend and author in Newfoundland, Carolyn R. Parsons, said she had managed to get some of her work included in the project and had enough space on her microdisk to include him as well.

A rocket sits upright.
This rocket will carry a lander and books from a couple hundred authors up to the moon. (United Launch Alliance)

When do the books go?

The NASA launch is scheduled for Feb. 25 at Cape Canaveral in Florida, which will see his book Skin House brought to the stars along with other works of independent fiction.

Blouin is getting the chance to see the launch.

“These launches sometimes get delayed due to technical reasons or due to weather,” he said.

“But I’m hoping to give myself a big enough window that I’ll actually be on site.”

Blouin had some advice for people who aspire to write or create.

“Any young person aspiring in the arts just shouldn’t give up. Keep trying,” he said. “It can be a tough go but it’s worth every moment.”

He’s getting another of his books — I am Billy the Kid — up to the moon in 2024.

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