Photo: The Canadian Press
The Artemis 1 rocket stands ready for launch from Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
UPDATE: 10:20 a.m.
NASA’s new moon rocket remained on track for liftoff in a crucial test flight on Monday, despite a series of lightning strikes on the launch pad.
The 322-foot (98-meter) Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful NASA has ever built. It is about to send an empty crew capsule into lunar orbit, half a century after NASA’s Apollo program, which landed 12 astronauts on the moon.
Astronauts could return to the moon in a few years, if this six-week test flight goes well. NASA officials warn, however, that the risks are high and the flight could be cut short.
Instead of astronauts, three test dummies are attached to the Orion capsule to measure vibration, acceleration and radiation, one of the greatest dangers to humans in deep space. The capsule alone has more than 1,000 sensors.
Officials said Sunday that neither the rocket nor the capsule sustained damage in Saturday’s thunderstorm; ground equipment was also unaffected. Five lightning strikes were confirmed, striking the 600-foot (183-meter) towers surrounding the rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The strikes weren’t strong enough to warrant a major retest.
“Obviously the system worked as expected,” said NASA senior test manager Jeff Spaulding.
More thunderstorms were expected. Although forecasters gave an 80% chance of acceptable weather Monday morning, conditions are expected to deteriorate during the two-hour launch window.
On the technical side, Spaulding said the team had done its best over the past few months to eliminate any lingering fuel leaks. A pair of countdown tests earlier this year resulted in repairs to leaky valves and other faulty equipment; engineers won’t know if all the fixes are good until just hours before the scheduled liftoff.
After so many years of delays and setbacks, the launch team was thrilled to finally be so close to the maiden flight of the Artemis lunar exploration program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.
“We’re less than 24 hours away from launch right now, which is pretty amazing considering where we’ve been on this trip,” Spaulding told reporters.
The Artemis follow-on flight, as early as 2024, would see four astronauts fly around the moon. A landing could follow in 2025. NASA is targeting the moon’s uncharted south pole, where permanently shadowed craters are thought to contain ice that could be used by future crews.
ORIGINAL: 8:30 a.m.
The last time humans went to the moon, it was a destination.
But when NASA’s Artemis 1 mission launches on Monday, the moon will be more of a passing station.
“It’s really to learn how we can go further,” said Isabelle Tremblay of the Canadian Space Agency, which plays an important role in the Artemis missions. “It’s really to learn how we can go to Mars.”
Artemis 1 is the first in a series of flights intended to land on a base orbiting the moon, from which crews can then venture into the solar system. The mission is to drop 10 science satellites into lunar orbit, but the primary goal is to test NASA’s new launch system and Orion spacecraft for Artemis 2.
This is where things get really interesting. Artemis 2, scheduled for spring 2024, would be the first crewed mission to the Moon since the last Apollo mission half a century ago.
“There will definitely be a Canadian among the crew,” said Tremblay.
Artemis 2 will orbit the moon and Artemis 3 astronauts will land there. But the Artemis missions aim to go beyond the Earth satellite to build the lunar gateway. The small space station orbiting the moon can be used as a launch point for future missions to Mars and beyond.
This is where Canada’s main contribution to the Artemis program will shine. The gateway will feature a third version of the famous robotic Canadarm.
The Canadarm 3 will actually offer two hands, meaning one hand can fix the other. He will maintain, repair and inspect the walkway, hook passing vehicles to the walkway, adjust walkway work modules, assist astronauts on spacewalks and assist with scientific measurements. It will be operated both remotely from Earth and autonomously, operating autonomously.
Contributions like the Canadarm are why Canadian scientists and astronauts play such an important role in space exploration, Tremblay said.
“We always say we punch above our weight.”
In addition to the Canadarm, Canadian science and technology is behind the machinery for NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently beaming back to Earth stunning images of some of the oldest galaxies in existence.
Canada’s contribution to the US$10 billion James Webb was $178 million for design and construction and $16.5 million for science support, through 2021 – and that’s about 5% of the telescope observing time.
Canadian science also contributes in other ways.
Scientists and private companies are taking part in a NASA challenge to create healthy, appetizing foods that can be grown in space. Others are at the forefront of space medicine.
A University of British Columbia experiment on Artemis 1 is looking at the effect deep space radiation can have on yeast and algal cells, which could be cultured for both nutrition and fuel.
Canadarm 3 is expected to cost a total of $1.9 billion over 24 years.
It’s a good investment, said Tremblay.
There are technical and scientific fallouts for those left on Earth. Space exploration can help address challenges such as food security and health care, Tremblay said.
Business opportunities may also follow.
“The moon has become a strategic objective,” Tremblay said. “There may be resources that we can use to go further, but there may be resources that are useful to us.”
Artemis 1 must stay in space for up to 42 days, orbit the Moon and travel more than two million kilometers.
But that will only be the beginning of Artemis’ challenge to the great black beyond.
“The moon is a stepping stone to Mars,” Tremblay said. “It’s on the moon that you can learn to go further.”