A breakdown of NASA’s Artemis plan and the components involved, as well as input as to how students can get involved.
Shoulders hunched and eyebrows furrowed, the world listened intently to the countdown emanating from computer and television screens. Once the last digit was declared, the sight of the Apollo-11 rocket launch unfolded in a frenzy of lights and noises.
This immense step towards deep space exploration that involved visiting the moon in 1969 has been unmatched in both its technological advancements and distance traveled by humans outside Earth’s orbit — until 2024.
In 2019, the NASA administration announced the Artemis mission, or the “twin sister of Apollo,” a space excursion aiming to land humans on the moon by 2024. In doing so, Artemis will take steps towards deep space exploration for potential Mars civilization.
Senior Anika Jain, an officer of Monta Vista’s astronomy club, is one of the many people who support NASA’s decision to explore the moon before attempting to visit Mars.
“The Artemis program will lay a foundation,” Jain said. “I feel like it’s necessary for us to understand what’s out there.”
Naturally, doing so involves fascinating technology and mastery of time management to carry out this ambitious goal.
Exploration ground systems
Before even probing the lunar surface using these key components, exploration ground systems (based in NASA’s Kennedy Space Center) provide facilities that serve as the groundwork for Orion, an integral aspect of the program carrying astronauts to and from orbit. For example, the Operations & Checkout Building High Bay will assemble the Orion spacecraft, the Multi-Payload Processing Facility will fuel Orion, and the Launch Abort System Facility will be positioned on top of Orion for launch. While many elements of the Artemis program remain ambiguous due to the ambitious 2024 goal, ground systems remain integral to every space mission, especially Artemis since they are supposed to ensure safe transport of astronauts and therefore involve meticulous design.
Preparing for the moon with CAPSTONE CubeSat and VIPER
In early 2021, the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat will launch prior to Gateway to verify the orbit and rotate with the moon for at least six months.
Another component exploring and testing the moon’s conditions before official launches is the Volatiles Investigating Exploration Rover (VIPER), or the lunar rover that will land on the Moon in late 2023. It will explore the distribution of water ice on the moon to determine the extent of the resources available that may be useful in future human space exploration.
While probing space provides extremely useful groundwork, identifying potential resources and verifying the Near-Rectilinear Halo orbit (NRHO) will be extremely useful to future Mars missions that extend outside the 2024 timeline. Junior Ojas Karnavat, an officer from the astronomy club, believes that these experiments themselves hold great influence over the future of space exploration.
“There’s so much we can learn just by the experiments conducted,” Karnavat said. “It’s just a step ahead of everything we’ve done so far and a step towards exploring the solar system.” As a result, even high-schoolers who may be the future of astronautical technology are enabled to learn more about what deep-space is made up of through these explorations.
The Gateway, one of the most critical aspects of the Artemis program that acts as a space station in NRHO orbit will play a potentially key role in Artemis.
It is made up of three critical elements: the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), and logistics capabilities. PPE will provide power, communications, attitude control, and orbital transfer capabilities while HALO will serve as habitation and provide basic life support. The PPE and HALO will launch together, while the logistics capabilities will deliver critical cargo.
It also serves as a testing point for future Mars missions, since the process to operate it has been designed to extend through many deep space explorations. Therefore, the Gateway also acts as another component of the Artemis mission which will extend past the 2024 scale towards the broader future of space exploration that a new generation of astronautics engineers will improve upon.
“We’re trying to do new things we’ve never done before with technology we haven’t used before,” Karnavat said, adding how unfamiliar yet integral the Gateway is to future missions.
Orion, another key component, acts as safe transportation for four astronauts to and from the moon and meets with the Gateway. It is made up of the launch abort system (LAS), the crew module and the service module. The LAS pulls the astronauts sitting in the crew module away from the rocket in case of an emergency, and the service module harnesses natural resources to provide energy for the overall spacecraft, such as energy harvested through solar panels.
Orion is designed particularly to sustain high temperatures in the lunar environment. Dr. Parul Agarwal, a NASA scientist working on heat shield material testing, elaborates on the several moving parts involved.
“There’s been almost ten years worth of work,” Agarwal said. “Because we want to make sure that astronauts are safe coming back from deep space missions or from their journey to the moon and entering the atmosphere coming at such high speed.”
Since speed is proportional to heat, entering the Moon’s atmosphere requires thorough heat shield work, especially for Orion, which is responsible for ensuring all the life inside the vehicle is unharmed.
The first official mission testing exploration on the moon will be Artemis I, which will test only Orion and the SLS. It will focus on reentry and heat shield performance as well as retrieval assessment. It will not carry any humans but is crucial in ensuring a safe flight.
Artemis II will set the record for the highest amount of miles traveled by a crewed flight, or a flight carrying astronauts.
The SLS rocket will carry Orion and make two orbits around Earth before leaving towards the Moon and entering a high-Earth orbit (HEO,) then eventually the NHRO orbit.
After the Gateway is established in NHRO orbit, one of three different contenders for Human Landing systems, systems that help with the astronaut’s physical transition onto the moon — National Teams Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV,) Dynetics Human Landing Systems (DHLS,) and SpaceX Starship — will interact with the Gateway and pave the way for the Artemis III mission.
Given that each of these three human landing systems have entirely different approaches and one of them is still yet to be chosen, the exact process throughout the mission still remains undetailed.
With confidence established through the previous missions, the official Artemis III crewed mission will take place. This mission is scheduled for 2024, though many aspects of the program, especially the human landing system, remain tentative.
As Orion captures the NRHO, it will meet with Gateway, where two astronauts will remain and the other two will use one of the three HLS to land on the moon.
Once the mission is complete, Gateway will stay at the NRHO before official decommissioning and reusable elements of the HLS will remain depending on the type used.
Future of Space Exploration
Many aspects of the Artemis mission will be extended for future use while discovering Mars. While this will be one of the most revolutionary and useful space endeavors of this time, it will eventually be held secondary to future missions in the coming centuries.
Given this, it’s extremely important that younger generations and even current students be exposed to the technological and scientific aspects of this space program.
“I think the first step is to build upon this inherent fascination of space that many children have,” Karanvat said. “A lot of my friends when they were younger said they were interested in astronomy and I don’t think we do justice to the curiosity of young people, eventually interest dies down.”
To combat this by encouraging the natural curiosity that children have of space, Karnavat adds that children should have opportunities where they can attend stargazing events, just introduce more opportunities for them to appreciate space
Jain also emphasizes the lack of astronomy exposure in schools. “Even in a high school environment,” Jain said. “The physics courses we have at school currently could focus a little more currently on the applications of how what we’re learning applies to the universe because I noticed in my AP Physics C textbook there’s only one brief section that talks about astronomy.”
In addition to cultivating an environment that encourages curiosity and learning of deep space, doing personal research into space programs is an important and viable option. “Kids in [this] generation have access to high-speed internet,” Agarwal said. “Make use of it, there’s so much material out there.”
The more students learn about space exploration the more the future generation will be able to contribute to advancing space technology.
In contributing to programs like the Artemis mission, hopefully, deep space exploration will advance towards the Moon and beyond and the science conducted will invoke the same sense of passion and ambition in the world initially drawn by the Apollo-11 mission.