Space Sunday: Artemis rises, a star is (almost) born

NASA’s SLS rocket soars into the Florida early morning sky, November 16th, 2022, at the start of the Artemis 1 mission to cislunar space.. Credit: United Launch Alliance

On November 16th, 2022 NASA launched what is – for a time at least – the world’s most powerful  rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), on its maiden flight. The uncrewed mission marks the first flight of a human-capable vehicle to the vicinity of the Moon under the aegis of NASA’s Project Artemis.

Lift-off came at 06:47 UTC on the morning, and the rocket – roughly the size of the Apollo Saturn V but massing around 400 tonnes less and with engines generating 5 meganewtons greater thrust – was no slow climber like Saturn V; instead it fairly leapt into the night sky, thundering from 0 to 120 km/h in just a handful of seconds as it lifted an Orion capsule and service module away from the launch pad and on their way to orbit.

The view home: a camera mounted on one of Orion’s four solar arrays looks back at Earth from a distance of almost 92,000 km, 12.5 hours after launch as the vehicle makes a sweeping 6-day arc out from Earth to the Moon. Credit: NASA TV

It was actually a launch that also nearly didn’t take place (again); during fuelling operations immediately ahead of the launch, a leak was detected. Such leaks have been the bane of this rocket’s existence, and for a time it was uncertain if NASA would stop or delay the fuelling operation – and even scrub the entire launch attempt.

Instead, a risky decision was taken to send in a Red Team to Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Centre to try to fix the leak with the liquid hydrogen propellant feed at the base of the rocket, even with propellants in the tank and the risk of a spark causing an explosion. The team – engineers Trent Annis, Billy Cairns and Chad Garrett worked under the “living” rocket – these monsters do not stand quietly when even partially fuelled, they creak, groan and periodically vent excess gasses – to tighten the “packing nuts” designed to hold the seals on the propellant feed line tightly in place. The crew arrived on the pad just 3.5 minutes ahead of the launch and had to work fast to fix the issue if a launch scrub was to be avoided.

The three-man Red Team address reporters following their trip to the launch pad to fix a liquid hydrogen propellant leak during fuelling operations. Credit: NASA TV

Obviously, the team was successful – which does not lessen the risks they took as unsung heroes of the launch – and at 07:01 UTC, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) upper stage of the rocket placed the Orion vehicle in an initial orbit, and just over 30 minutes afterwards, the Orion service module successfully deployed the four solar arrays required to provide it and Orion with electrical power.

An hour later, after raising Orion’s orbit, the IPCS stage re-lit is engines to propel Orion from Earth orbit and into a trans-lunar injection orbit at 08:37 UTC, the stage separating from the space vehicle at 09:13 UTC.

Since then, the mission has progressed precisely as planned. At 14:30 UTC, Orion completed its first engine burn, correcting its flight to the Moon, and then late in the day a camera mounted on one of the service module’s solar panels captured a shot of Earth as seen from the vehicle, already almost some 92 thousand kilometres from Earth. On November 18th, the vehicle returned a further image of Earth – in greyscale – as it reached the 299,000 km from Earth mark.

A view of Artemis 1 simulated by AROW – he Artemis Real-time Orbit Website – showing the vehicle as it approaches the Moon on Sunday, November 20th. Note the vehicle appear to be travelling sideways in order to keep its solar arrays facing the Sun. Credit NASA AROW

The next major milestone for the flight comes on Monday, November 21st, 2022, Orion will complete the first stage of its leisurely, widely-curved outbound flight to the Moon. At 12:44 UTC on that day, with the vehicle passing around the far side of the Moon at a distance of 130 km, the vehicle will undertake a 2.5 minute burn of its main engine to direct itself into a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) which will carry it as far as 432,000 km from Earth.

The critical aspect of this manoeuvre is that it will occur when the vehicle is out-of-communication with Earth, thanks to the Moon being in between. The entire manoeuvre will therefore be carried out entirely by the onboard flight systems.

The flight so far has tested almost all of Orion’s flight, navigation and other systems, with only 13 issues, the majority defined as “benign”, being recorded. The most significant issue has been the star tracker – part of the flight navigation system. This was getting “dazzled” by thruster plumes as the vehicle adjusted its orientation during flight. While the tracker itself was designed to ignore the plumes, their brightness did confuse the flight software – something that hadn’t been considered could happen during testing. However, now it has been identified, the problem can be dealt with by Mission Control.

More substantial damage was actually done by the rocket itself at launch; the sheer power on the four RS25 engines and two solid rocket boosters did unspecified, but apparently extensive, damage to the mobile launch platform and launch tower. How much damage they sustained is unclear, but Pad 39B has been known to cause launch platforms using it damage. This was particularly noticeable following the launch of Apollo 10 in ay 1969 and again with the Ares 1-X launch in October2009 which resulted in some US $800 million in damages to the pad, platform and tower – although this was in part due  the vehicle having to be launched slightly off-vertical, resulting exhaust plume physically striking the tower.

The view inside Orion: “Commander Moonikin Campos” seated in the command position aboard Orion, facing a set of dummy digital display panels. The mannequin is testing the Orion Crew Survival System Suit (OCSSS), designed to keep crew alive in the event of the vehicle’s life support system experiencing a malfunction. Credit: NASA TV

As  I noted in my previous Space Sunday report, Orion is carrying a range of experiments onboard, all of which are being monitored throughout the flight. Chief among these are the radiation experiments which will come into their own as the vehicle enters its extended orbit around the Moon, where it will remain through until it again uses the Moon to swing itself back onto a return course to Earth in December 2022.

If you want to interactive track Artemis 1, you can do so via NASA’s Artemis Real-time Orbit Website (AROW). In the meantime, the video below captures the stacking of the Artemis 1 SLS vehicle inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Centre, together with the original roll-out to the pad earlier this year, and the night-time roll-out ahead of the launch, together with the initial phase of the mission’s ascent to orbit.

An Hourglass in Space

This colourful hourglass  shown below is the latest image captured by the James Webb Space  Telescope (JWST) to be released to the public. It shows the immediate surrounding of a protostar – a star still being formed. It is an object that is normally hidden from view as It lies within a dense, dark cloud of gas and dust known as L1527 lying within the constellation of Taurus. Given the cloak of darkness surrounding it, the region has been an ideal target for JWST’s infra-red capabilities.

The protostar itself is invisible in the image, sitting within the magic, dark band sitting between the two halves of the “hourglass”. This dark band is a disc of gas, dust and other debris caught in the protostar’s gravitational influence, and is being drawn into the star to feed its growth and formation.

A James Webb Space Telescope image of the protostar at the heart L1527 shows the turbulent cosmic hourglass shape it creates. Credit: NASA / ESA / STScI – Joseph DePasquale,, Alyssa Pagan and, Anton M. Koekemoer

Whilst spherical in nature, the protostar is believed to be far from stable – a puffy lump of gas and material subject to periodic burps – ejections of matter through its poles. These are indicated by the glowing orange and blue fans, where the ejected material has cleared out “cavities” within the surrounding dust cloud. Within the fans, can be seen bubble-like shapes created by successive “burps”, together with filaments of molecular hydrogen that has been shocked by past stellar ejections. The region at lower right appears blue, as there’s less dust between it and Webb than the orange regions above it.

L1527 is categorised as a Class 0 protostar, the youngest type of protostar, and is thought to be just 100,000 years old – a youngling in cosmic terms. Currently, it is not large enough to initiate nuclear fusion; but as it continues to gather mass from the surrounding disk it will grow in size, compressing the material at its core to a point where fusion will commence, and the star will literally burst into life.

This will not be for some time to come – L1527 is estimated to have a current mass of around 20-40% that of the Sun; however, studying it will help astronomers better understand more of the processes involved in stellar evolution – and the processes which lead to the birth of star systems.

SpaceX Completes 14-Engine Super Heavy Static Fire Test

On Monday, November 14th, 2022, SpaceX completed the anticipated 14-engine static fire test with Super Heavy Booster 7.

The “full duration” test took place at 18:51 UTC and lasted for 10 seconds. It marks a further step towards with overall first orbital launch attempt of the company’s gigantic Super Heavy / Starship combination, which is now expected to take place some time in December – although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has yet to issue a launch license for the vehicles. However, as well as requiring a license, the vehicle also needs to complete a further static fire test, this one with all 33 Raptor motors firing for up to 10 seconds.

Ahead of that test however, the launch facilities are liable to require some degree of repair,  having suffered some degree of damage – none of it too severe – as a result of the test. This is not entirely unexpected; unlike most large launch facilities, the Starbase launch platform does not have any form of flame / exhaust deflection mechanism,  relying simply on the water / liquid nitrogen sound suppression system (which may be inadequate for the task anyway, giving it is undertaken periodic upgrades)., and the height of the launch table above the ground.

This exposes the concrete legs of the launch table and the concrete apron under it to a good proportion of the exhaust shockwave to be deflected. In this case, enough to blow down the perimeter fence around launch area, smoother the surrounding in dust and pepper the base of the launch support tower and the nearby tank farm in concrete blasted from the apron. That said, it should be noted that none of the damage appears to be extensive enough to halt operations. As  such, a follow-up test with all 33 engines is anticipated by some as coming in the week or so.

UK Gains its First licensed Spaceport

Newquay Airport, Cornwall has become the first location on the UK mainland to be granted a license from the Civil aviation Authority (CAA) to operate as a spaceport and launch facility under the name of Spaceport Cornwall.

As  I’ve previously reported, the airport is to the UK base of operations for Virgin Orbit, utilising their air-launched LauncherOne rocket, carried to altitude by a modified 747 aircraft before being released to carry small payloads up to orbit. The license confirms that Spaceport Cornwall can host such launches without endangering public safety or the environment – although in order to use the facilities it offers, companies seeking to use them must obtain its own, separate launch license from the CAA.

Virgin Orbit’s 747 Cosmic Girl is serviced at Spaceport Cornwall, where it has been carrying out flight tests in preparation for the company’s first launch attempt from UK soil. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Currently, Virgin Orbit is gearing up for its first launch out of the spaceport. Their carrier aircraft, Cosmic Girl, arrived in the UK in October, following the delivery on the LauncherOne rocket that will also be a part of the launch attempt, carrying a number of smallsats into space. The company had hoped the airport’s license and its own would be granted in time for the launch to take place in November  2022; however, its own license application is still under evaluation, and the CAA has declined to indicate if / when it might be granted or refused.

Part of the problem has been that the CAA’s licensing team was, until recently, just 35 people dealing with multiple launch site and launch vehicle license applications, each of which can take up to 18 months to be granted, requiring as they do the gathering of public feedback, environmental impact studies, etc.  To help deal with the pressure, the team was recently expanded to 50 people;  in the meantime Virgin Orbit is hopeful that launch attempt can be made before the end of 2022.

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