NASA’s Moon Mission Will See Astronauts Travel At 24,500 Mph & Face 5,000 °F Temperatures

A render of the Orion spacecraft entering the Earth's atmosphere. Image: NASA

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has shared its launch plans for the Space Launch System (SLS) which is the agency's rocket that will kick off its Artemis program. This program is a set of missions that aims at developing a sustained presence on the Moon, and during a teleconference held earlier today, agency officials gave out tentative launch dates that they might commit to for the first Artemis launch. They also shared that the earliest launch date for the rocket is August 28th, followed by two more within the first week of September.

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The Artemis 1 launch is purely a test launch that will aim towards providing the space agency with valuable data to get comfortable with its systems, perform a series of complex maneuvers that will place astronauts in the Moon's vicinity and bring them back to Earth and test the Orion spacecraft that will carry them from Earth to an orbiting lunar space station called the Lunar Gateway.

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During the teleconference, agency officials shared that so far NASA is yet to commit to a specific launch date, but that the agency has a couple of dates in mind. The earliest of these is August 28th, followed by two other opportunities on the 2nd and 5th of September.

Whether NASA is comfortable with launching in August depends on several factors, as the agency is working with the rocket and addressing issues that have popped up over the past couple of months. Some of these include loose fittings for the rocket's umbilicals, installing batteries for the core stage, safing and arming devices for the flight termination system (FTS) and technology demonstrations for the Orion spacecraft such as its mannequins and video assistance systems for deep space.

The reentry profile for NASA's Orion spacecraft will use a skip entry profile to allow it to improve landing accuracy. Image: NASA

The Orion spacecraft will play a big role during the test flight, as NASA will focus a significant portion of its efforts on testing and studying it. According to NASA, the main objective of the mission is to evaluate Orion's reentry. As it enters the atmosphere, the spacecraft will be traveling at Mach 32 or roughly 24,500 miles per hour and its heatshield will have to withstand temperatures that are half as hot as the Sun's surface. These conditions cannot be replicated on Earth, and given the fact that the heatshield is a new design, NASA will be on the lookout for any complication that might arise due to the extreme entry conditions and profile.

This heatshield is built in blocks with a new material called AVOCAT, and the test mission will check for hotspots and any gaps between these blocks that might pose a danger to the spacecraft as it reenters the Earth and faces temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Additionally, as part of its reentry profile, the Orion spacecraft will also use an entirely new technique referred to as 'skip entry'. This will see the ship dip into the Earth before raising its altitude again in order to extend its range. NASA states that this new profile will improve Orion's landing precision, make the journey safer for astronauts and reduce the resources that the Navy has to spend on its recovery ships. The skip entry profile will result in lesser g-forces on the crew and evenly spread out temperatures for the heat shield.

Other objectives for the flight include testing and demonstrating the spacecraft, the rocket and teams across different NASA facilities, ensuring that Orion can pass through hazardous areas such as the Van Allen belts and successfully recovering the spaceship post splashdown. The journey to the Moon will involve six burns in pairs of two, the first two of which will ensure that Orion makes it to a lunar orbit and the last will place it back on its way to Earth. The mission will last for either 39 or 42 days depending on its launch date.

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