The Europe-built service module powering the Orion spaceship during the Artemis 1 mission is nailing its debut lunar round trip, but a key system for keeping future human crews alive is not being tested during the flight.
The Orion capsule, which commenced the return leg of its groundbreaking journey on Thursday (Dec. 1), is currently not filled with breathable air, European aerospace giant Airbus told Space.com. According to Airbus, which built Orion’s service module, the capsule’s life support system will only be fully put through its paces in ground-based labs before the first flight with astronauts in 2024.
The Europe-built service module, responsible for propulsion and navigation, is the part of the spacecraft that sustains livable conditions inside Orion’s crew compartment. The service module carries water the astronauts will need during the flight and generates breathable air by mixing oxygen and nitrogen that are stored in separate tanks.
During the Artemis 1 mission, however, engineers are only testing the nitrogen delivery system, but fortunately, neither Shaun the Sheep, the plush toy sent for the mission by the European Space Agency (ESA), nor the three dummies occupying the Orion cockpit, mind this fact.
“The oxygen and nitrogen delivery systems are very similar,” Airbus spokesperson Ralph Heinrich told Space.com in an email. “We carry nitrogen on board Artemis 1 and will be testing the nitrogen delivery system during the flight that’s ongoing at the moment. As the oxygen and nitrogen systems carry the same components, the test on the nitrogen distribution system will cover by similarity the oxygen delivery system. Furthermore, the oxygen system is being tested extensively on ground.”
For Airbus, the Artemis 1 mission represents a major victory. The company was awarded a contract to develop the service module, a key component of the Orion spacecraft, by ESA, based on their previous experience building the Automated Transfer Vehicle, a cargo spacecraft which used to supply the International Space Station between 2008 and 2014. During its lunar sorties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, NASA built all of the required technology at home in the United States and didn’t include any international partners.
The Artemis 1 service module is a culmination of ten years of work, and the Airbus team is delighted to see the craft performing with flying colors. So far, the service module has completed all of its key tasks flawlessly, including three engine burns, which first helped Orion to enter orbit around the moon, and then to subsequently leave lunar orbit to head back to Earth.
In a post-launch press conference, NASA admitted it detected 13 anomalies during the early phase of Orion’s flight, including erratic readings from star trackers that the space capsule uses to navigate.
“Engineers will be looking into the data that’s coming back from Orion so that every single system, every single component on board of the spacecraft can be tested in one way or another before the next mission,” Sian Cleaver, the European Service module project manager at Airbus told Space.com in an interview. “So far, everything is going well. Of course, there’ll be things that can be improved or changed. There were a few things that didn’t work exactly as planned, but none of them were major issues.”
Airbus engineers are receiving a stream of data from the spacecraft including “pressure, temperature, valve position data and currents and voltages” to monitor its health, Airbus wrote in an email.
“We look at all the data throughout the whole mission, and especially during major events, like main engine firings,” Airbus wrote. “[We] make sure the system is operated within its expected and qualified range. The data is also being stored continuously, to allow post flight analyses and prepare for the next Artemis missions.”
Airbus has already delivered the next service module to NASA for testing and mating with the crew compartment for the Artemis 2 mission,which will take humans to orbit around the moon for the first time since the final Apollo flight in 1972. That mission is expected to launch no earlier than 2024, if all goes according to plan. The company has also nearly completed the assembly of the third service module, which will power the Artemis 3 mission that is expected to involve a lunar landing no earlier than 2025.
The bones of the fourth service module have also been put together and plans are in place to begin work on the fifth specimen later this month. These service modules will cover Artemis missions 4 and 5, which are expected to take off to the moon toward the end of this decade. By that time, the Lunar Gateway space station will be put together in orbit around the moon, opening a new era of regular human visits to Earth’s companion.
“It really feels like a bit of a production line going on now at our facility,” Cleaver said. “It’s really exciting. The program is really, really moving now. We have a plan for the next 10 years, and there are also clear messages from NASA and ESA that the moon is only the first step and that the technology will be used to eventually go to Mars.”
Airbus is under contract to build the service module number six and is currently negotiating another batch of three. The service modules are single-use only and will detach from the crew capsule before it enters Earth’s atmosphere during its return.
The Artemis 1 mission lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16. The mission was a debut not only for Orion, but also for the Space Launch System mega rocket that lofted it into space. During the mission, Orion passed only 80 miles (130 kilometers) above the moon’s surface, and also broke a record for the greatest distance from Earth ever achieved by a human-rated spacecraft. By getting as far as 270,000 miles (435,000 km) from the planet, Orion surpassed the previous maximum held by the Apollo 13 mission. That mission, however, only got that far as part of a rescue operation designed to bring it back home after an onboard explosion crippled the spacecraft.
An SUV-sized asteroid zoom by Earth in close shave flyby in this time-lapse video
Asteroid 2023 BU zipped past Earth Thursday night (Jan. 26) to the delight of amateur astronomers worldwide. For skywatchers without access to a telescope or those who had their view hampered by bad weather, luckily the Italy-based Virtual Telescope Project was there to observe the event and livestream the whole thing for free.
The Virtual Telescope is a robotic telescope operated by Italian amateur astronomer Gianluca Masi near Rome, Italy. As 2023 BU hurtled toward Earth, the telescope was able to track the rock through a gap in the clouds when it was about 13,670 miles (22,000 kilometers) from the closest point on Earth’s surface (about the altitude of the GPS navigation satellite constellation) and 22,990 miles (37,000 km) from the Virtual Telescope.
Masi, who shared an hour-long webcast of the observations on the Virtual Telescope website, wasn’t able to capture the closest approach as clouds rolled in, however. Nonetheless, the Virtual Telescope Project was able to get a good look at the car-sized rock, seen in time-lapse above.
The rock, discovered less than a week ago on Saturday (Jan. 21), passed above the southern tip of South America at 7:27 p.m. EST on Thursday Jan. 26 (0027 GMT on Jan. 27), at a distance of only 2,240 miles (3,600 km) at its closest point to Earth’s surface.
Only 11.5 to 28 feet wide (3.5 to 8.5 meters), 2023 BU posed no danger to the planet. If the trajectories of the two bodies had intersected, the asteroid would mostly have burned up in the atmosphere with only small fragments possibly falling to the ground as meteorites.
In the videos and images shared by Masi, the asteroid is seen as a small bright dot in the center of the frame, while the longer, brighter lines are the surrounding stars. In reality, of course, it was the asteroid that was moving with respect to Earth, traveling at a speed of 21,000 mph (33,800 km/h) with respect to Earth. As Masi’s computerized telescope tracked its positionthe rock appeared stationary in the images while rendering the stars as these moving streaks.
The gravitational kick that 2023 BU received during its encounter with Earth will alter the shape of its orbit around the sun. Previously, the space rock followed a rather circular orbit, completing one lap around the sun in 359 days. From now on, BU 2023 will travel through the inner solar system on a more elliptical path, venturing half way toward Mars at the farthest point of its orbit. This alteration will add 66 days to BU 2023’s orbital period.
The asteroid was discovered by famed Crimea-based astronomer and astrophotographer Gennadiy Borisov, the same man who in 2018 found the first interstellar comet, which now bears his name, Borisov.
Green comet zooming our way, last visited 50,000 years ago
A comet is streaking back our way after 50,000 years.
The dirty snowball last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It will come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of Earth Wednesday before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years.
So do look up, contrary to the title of the killer-comet movie “Don’t Look Up.”
Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet already is visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, best seen in the predawn hours. By Feb. 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark.
Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse.
While plenty of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking guru, Paul Chodas.
Green from all the carbon in the gas cloud, or coma, surrounding the nucleus, this long-period comet was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. That explains its official, cumbersome name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).
On Wednesday, it will hurtle between the orbits of Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 128,500 mph (207,000 kilometers). Its nucleus is thought to be about a mile (1.6 kilometers) across, with its tails extending millions of miles (kilometers).
The comet isn’t expected to be nearly as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid to late 1990s.
But “it will be bright by virtue of its close Earth passage … which allows scientists to do more experiments and the public to be able to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email.
Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations putting the comet’s last swing through the solar system‘s planetary neighborhood at 50,000 years ago. But they don’t know how close it came to Earth or whether it was even visible to the Neanderthals, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
When it returns, though, is tougher to judge.
Every time the comet skirts the sun and planets, their gravitational tugs alter the iceball’s path ever so slightly, leading to major course changes over time. Another wild card: jets of dust and gas streaming off the comet as it heats up near the sun.
“We don’t really know exactly how much they are pushing this comet around,” Chodas said.
The comet—a time capsule from the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago—came from what’s known as the Oort Cloud well beyond Pluto. This deep-freeze haven for comets is believed to stretch more than one-quarter of the way to the next star.
While comet ZTF originated in our solar system, we can’t be sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If it gets booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added.
Don’t fret if you miss it.
“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of these,” Chodas said. “And the next one might be bigger, might be brighter, might be closer.”
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University of Guelph students are in the race to grow food in space
Growing food in space is a complex challenge, but students at the University of Guelph have a pretty good idea of how to go about it.
The team, Canada GOOSE — which stands for Growth Options for Outer Space Environments — is among five teams across Canada, including the University of Waterloo, competing in the multi-year competition from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) known as the Deep Space Food Challenge.
The team is currently on the second phase of the competition and hosted representatives from CSA on Thursday to showcase their idea.
The teams have been instructed to develop new technologies that would be able to produce food in space, but that could also be used for production here on Earth.
The Canada GOOSE team uses a hydroponic-like, high-density system to produce several kinds of fruits, vegetables and mushrooms.
“We have a multi-tier system growing a variety of plants, but the whole environment is being controlled so, air circulation, temperature, CO2 level, also light levels with the LEDs. So basically giving the best conditions for the plants to grow,” explained Serge Levesque, a second-year PhD student.
Rosemary Brockett, a second year masters student, explained the crops were developed and grown to produce as little waste as possible.
“We can’t have any kind of waste in space or in remote areas so we’re growing them all using fabric wicks,” she said.
“The fabric pulls up the water to the plants and then we have 3D-printed holders that support the plants and the fabric.”
Brockett said they can grow root vegetables like turnips and carrots; dwarf tomatoes and peppers; leafy greens like cabbage, lettuce and bok choy; smaller trays have herbs, radish microgreens and sprouts.
Levesque said they also grow mushrooms because they play a key role in the unit’s ecosystem.
“Plants photosynthesize and release oxygen and mushrooms need oxygen to release CO2, so it allows us to use CO2 more efficiently,” he said, adding the inedible parts of other vegetables can be used to help grow the mushrooms; a way to re-use and eliminate waste.
Tech can help feed, educate Earthlings
The Canadian grand prize won’t be announced until Spring 2024, but no matter the results, the students see applications for their technology closer to home.
First-year PhD student Ajwal Dsouza says it could be a useful education tool for youth, for example.
“Imagine putting this system up in a school or a university and educate people about the technological advancements happening but also [encourage] younger generations to study this,” and can also imagine applications in addressing food insecurity in other more remote parts of the world, like Canada’s northern communities.
“A system like this can be economically feasible. You can use it in remote areas where there is food insecurity using limited resources,” he said.
“We can grow food in places where the weather is not good, like Canada’s north or in a desert, where there’s limited resources. This can help people grow food in tough conditions,” said Dsouza.
The Canada GOOSE team will find out if they enter the third stage of the competition in March.
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