Home » The US in the front row in the space race: ESA deals with Musk, NASA returns to the moon with Artemis

The US in the front row in the space race: ESA deals with Musk, NASA returns to the moon with Artemis

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The US in the front row in the space race: ESA deals with Musk, NASA returns to the moon with Artemis

The war between Russia and Ukraine is also rewriting the dynamics of space exploration. The Soyuz rockets, in fact, are no longer usable by Western countries, primarily Europe, so ESA has started preliminary technical discussions with Elon Musk’s SpaceX that could lead to the use of its vectors for space missions. At least until Ariane 6 is ready: “I would say there are two and a half options we are discussing. One is SpaceX. Another is possibly Japan,” ESA CEO Josef Aschbacher told Reuters. “Another option could be India,” he added. With Moscow increasingly isolated, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has won over other customers, but the entire US space industry is experiencing a moment of great growth. And it is no coincidence that the US has just announced the next step towards the Moon. The first of the Artemis program missions could take off as early as August: 29 is the first useful date, alternatively there are 2 and 5 September to bring the new Orion capsule, powered by the most powerful carrier, developed specifically for the new ” space race ”, the Space launch system (Sls). Even if it is a dress rehearsal, (there will be no crew on board) the expectation of the new leap to return to where one has not set foot in almost 50 years is great. This time, however, unlike the Apollo program, the United States will not be alone. Europe and Japan will also be on board, in an international effort to conquer the Moon again and, in the future, make it the stepping stone to Mars.

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The new rocket for the moon

As tall as a 30-story building (about 100 meters) according to NASA explains that the SLS is “the most powerful rocket we have ever built”. Even more than the glorious Saturn V of the Apollo missions. After a gestation lasting over ten years (and some tens of billions) it is ready for its maiden flight. The first stage together with solid propellant boosters will push the Orion into low earth orbit. It will happen, if everything goes green, at 2.33pm on August 29th (the launch opportunity window closes two hours later). Then the second stage will give the “kick” to detach itself from our Planet towards deep space. One and a half hours after takeoff, Orion will set sail for the moon.

The drawing explains the trajectory of the Orion capsule, from take-off to return to Earth

Eyewitness: the Italian Argomoon probe

Once the second stage, the Interim cryogenic propulsion stage (Icps), has completed its task, it will shut down and the shuttle will enter its “cruise” phase. After the detachment, the ten cubesats selected by NASA as support for the mission will enter the scene. One of these, Italian and the only European, is Argomoon, of the Italian Space Agency, built by the Turin-based Argotec. Its task will be to look around and recognize, thanks to machine learning algorithms, what surrounds it. First of all the Icps, now off. It will have to orient itself and navigate independently, finding the landmarks in the sky by itself, to take pictures of the engine and send them to Earth. After this phase, Argomoon will be “free” to fly. In the following days it will enter a very elongated elliptical orbit around the Earth which will bring it, however, to approach a few thousand kilometers from the same Moon, to take new, fascinating images.


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Europe pushes Orion to the moon

Let’s go back on board the capsule, which now sails thanks to the European service module (ESM), the most important contribution of the European Space Agency (ESA) to the Artemis program. It is at the same time the engine and the brain of the mission, with a substantial Italian contribution. The module is one with Orion, to which it supplies energy thanks to the solar panels made by Leonardo together with the control and power distribution units; with his computers and 11 kilometers of cables, he controls all aspects of the mission; with 33 thrusters it ensures the thrust to accelerate and perform the necessary maneuvers during the cruise phase, in orbit around the Moon and on return; contains the air and water tanks for the crew; it maintains the temperature inside the capsule with cooling and heating circuits made by Thales Alenia Space (a joint venture between Thales 67% and Leonardo 33%), which also took care of the structure and critical subsystems of the module, including protection from micrometeorites.

The European service module joined the Orion capsule after the installation of solar panels at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida

The cruise phase will last four days, when a human transport vehicle will finally enter the lunar orbit again. It hadn’t exactly happened in 50 years, Apollo 17, 1972. His first flyby it will be a grazing passage just 100 kilometers from its surface, a forced maneuver to enter a distant retrograde orbit that will take it up to 40,000 kilometers beyond the Moon, the greatest distance ever reached by a manned shuttle ( the record still belongs to Apollo 13). An orbit chosen to test all systems in deep space. And thanks to which “a new generation will be able to admire a new one Earthrise”, They explain from NASA. The iconic photo taken by the Apollo 8 crew who saw the Earth, Blue Planet, rise from the moon’s gray horizon.

The iconic image of the rising Earth (Earthrise) taken by the Apollo 8 crew on December 24, 1968. It is the first photograph taken by a man from the lunar horizon (Credits: Nasa)

To return, Orion will take advantage of a new assist from our satellite, using its gravitational pull as a slingshot, while the motors of the ESM will re-ignite to give another, powerful, push, and thus exit the lunar orbit and return towards home. Another four days of cruising will bring it back into the gravitational embrace of the Earth. Before re-entering the atmosphere, she will separate from the European module (which will burn on re-entering), and will continue her trajectory until landing in the Pacific. The friction with the air, during the re-entry at 11 kilometers per second, will heat the heat shield up to over 2,700 degrees centigrade. The parachutes that will open in series, finally, will slow the fall until the splashdown, 42 days after the departure, on 10 October. Waiting for him will find the recovery ships, in what will be the last simulated phase of a human lunar mission: to safely extract the astronauts. If everything goes as planned, next time (perhaps in 2024) the first crew to leave Earth’s orbit and touch the Moon in this century will emerge from the Orion capsule. Waiting to finally land on the surface again. And build an orbiting laboratory around there

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A space “time capsule”

But Orion will not be empty. Many objects and memorabilia will find space on board, not only from the American Space Agency but provided by all partners. Italy included. NASA defined it as a “time capsule” that collects symbols “of cultural significance and of the collaboration of NASA with organizations that have a scientific purpose”. It includes several memorabilia from past explorations such as the Apollo missions, including a sample of lunar rock collected by Neil Armstrong’s expedition. In the list of the “flight kit” https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/artemis_i_official_flight_kit.pdf there are the flags of all participating states, scrap metal from the construction of the rocket and capsule (which could one day be melted down to create medals and commemorative items).

The European mascot, Shaun the sheep, will fly in the first mission of the Artemis program (Credits: ESA / Aardman)

Along with an unspecified number of flags and pins, many contributions from schools around the world. A nib donated by the Charles Schulz Museum, California and a comic strip of him. And there will be a Snoopy puppet, dressed in an astronaut suit, as the “zero g indicator” (hanging on a string, when it starts to float it means that the spaceship is in orbit, each crew has a different one), together to Shaun the sheep, animated character and mascot with European space suit. Sycamore seeds will also fly to the moon (they were also brought by Apollo 14 around the moon in 1971 and then planted on return) and other trees. One of the seats will be occupied, that of the commander: “Commander Moonikin Campos”, the mannequin equipped with sensors to record vibrations, accelerations and the forces that will act on the human body, will take place.

For Italy, “images, songs and poems inspired by the Moon will be uploaded on board, sent by schools, hospitals and Italian citizens – ASI says – an initiative conceived by the Italian Space Agency, strongly supported by the president Asi Giorgio Saccoccia, to bring the thought and creativity of those who look to space as a source of inspiration, peace and beauty around the Moon.

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