Space Sunday: Artemis, asteroids and a bit more Artemis

NASA Moon to Mars, 2020. Credit NASA

The Biden Administration has published further details on it 2024 budget proposal in support of NASA in which further details of the agency’s “Moon to Mars Manifest were revealed. Key points on the latter include:

  • The crewed Artemis 2 mission, intended to fly a crew around the Moon in an extended mission similar to that of the successful Artemis 1, confirmed for November 2024.
  • Artemis 3, the first mission to return humans to the surface of the Moon by the United States, is scheduled for 2025.
  • Artemis 4, the second crewed landing on the Moon now pushed back to 2028, with annual landings from there on through to the end of 2031.
  • Both Artemis 3 and Artemis 4 will utilise the SpaceX Starship-based Human Landing System (HLS) for carrying crews to / from the lunar surface and lunar orbit, after which crew activities will switch to the (still to be contracted) “sustainable human landing system”.
  • 2024 will also – in theory – see a demo flight of the SpaceX HLS, whilst the end of 2025/start of 2026 will see work commence on the Lunar Gateway station with the launch of the power module and habitation module to their extended lunar orbit.
  • 2028-2031 will also see work continue on the Gateway station alongside of the lunar landings.
  • Automated mission to the Moon in 2027 will demonstrate lunar construction techniques for developing a base, extracting usable commodities from the lunar surface, and testing power systems. Further demonstrations of these will take place in 2030.
The NASA Moon to Mars infographic, which formed a part of the White House NASA 2024 budget proposal. Crew NASA – click for full size

In support of the above will be a series of demonstrator missions in Earth orbit, as well as development work on Earth for longer-term goals. These include:

  • In-space propellant replenishment and storage for reusable lunar landers and deep space transportation vehicles under a programme referenced as CFM: Cryogenic Fluid Management, involving SpaceX (optimistically in 2023), Lockheed Martin (2025) and United Launch Alliance (2025).
  • Development and flight test of the NASA/DARPA DRACO nuclear thermal engine (see: Space Sunday: propulsion, planets and pictures), with the design to be completed by the end of 2024, together with a conceptual design for a nuclear electric engine.
  • Development and delivery of a nuclear fission power unit demonstrator for use on the Moon or Mars, to the surface of the Moon in 2030.
An artist’s impression of the NASA/DARPA DRACO NTP demonstrator, included in the NASA 2024 budget proposal. Credit: NASA

The budget proposal includes an immediate request for US $180 million for the agency to start seeking proposals for a “deorbit tug” for the International Space Station (ISS). This would be a vehicle developed over multiple years and at a total cost of around US $1 billion specifically designed to dock with the ISS in 2030 and the proceed to gently push it back into Earth’s atmosphere along s pre-planned course so that it burns-up and the large element splashdown at Point Nemo.

Also within the 2024 allocation is US $30 million in support of Europe’s ExoMars rover, and an increased request for NASA’s side of the proposed NASA / ESA Mars Sample Return Mission.

 ExoMars Back on Track /  Sample Return on Track for Budget Overrun

The US $30 million requested in NASA’s 2024 budget is in part to provide ESA with a launch service for Rosalind Franklin, ESA’s ExoMars rover vehicle, together with various technology support activities for a lander vehicle.

This project has had its share of issues over the past two decades, and up until 2022, the plan had been for a joint mission with Russia, the latter providing the launch vehicle and a lander to deliver the rover to the surface of Mars. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ended all ESA / Roscosmos cooperation.

Since then, ESA has remained relatively close-lipped about the rover’s future, but in a recently update, mission personnel confirmed 2028 is now being targeted for the mission’s launch. In addition they indicated that the agency will now build a dedicated lander for the rover which will leverage NASA’s expertise in propulsion, power and heat shield development. In addition, ESA has resumed testing of Amalia, the rover’s test bed vehicle.

The video below provides an inside look at Rosalind Franklin, and what marked the ExoMars rover mission unique among Mars missions.

In the meantime, the ambitious NASA / ESA Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission is threatening to overwhelm other elements of NASA’s science programme.

For the 2024 budget proposal, the White House has requested US $949.3 million for MSR – 19% more than the budget projection. It also notes that expenditure on the project will increase over projections through to the planned launch in 2028.

Working in concert with NASA’s Perseverance rover, which has been collecting samples from its travels across Jezero Crater and has recently started caching them for collection by MSR, the sample mission is designed as a two-part mission using a ESA-developed Mars orbiter to return the Perseverance samples to Earth, after they have been collected from the surface by a lander / recovery / ascent vehicle, primarily built by NASA.

An artist’s impression of the NASA / ESA Mars Sample Return mission. Credit NASA / ESA

NASA has already delayed the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission, which had been due for launch in 2028 prior to being put on hold in November 2022 over concerns about MSR costs, and will now not launch before 2031 – if at all. Now, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC) mission, a 2013 heliophysics decadal survey recommendation, will now also be suspended. MSR itself was expected to exceed US $7 billion prior to it being revised in an attempted to lower costs – however, it was approved for continuance in 2022 under the  Planetary Science Decadal Survey, on the understanding total costs would not exceed US 5.2 billion – which it still might.

Don’t Panic! Asteroid Won’t Ruin Valentine’s Day 2046

The media were all a-buzz this past week over the possibility of an asteroid impacting the Earth on Valentine’s Day, 2046. The (almost gleeful in some cases) reporting came as a result of NASA issuing an advisory which put asteroid 2023 DW at a 1 in 670 chance of striking Earth on that date (since revised to 1 in 1,584).

2023 DW  was discovered by Georges Attard and Alain Maury, from the MAP (Maury/Attard/Parrott) asteroid search programme in San Pedro de Atacama on 26th February 2023. It orbits the Sun once every 271 days, and most recently passed the Earth at a distance of 8.7 million km on February 18th 2023. Its orbit means that it approaches Earth from the direction of the Sun, meaning it – together with its small size – very hard to spot and track; something further compounded by sunlight reflected by a gibbous or full Moon can effectively mask it from view – as was the case between the 5th and 8th of March 2023 as astronomers tried gather more data on the object.

Measuring roughly 40 m by 80 m, 2023 DW is of a similar size to the rock which caused the 1908 Tunguska Event, and believed to be of similar structure. As such it would be unlikely to survive the full stresses of atmospheric entry were it to strike Earth, but would detonate in an air burst of around 10-15 megatons – sufficient to level a city were this to happen over a centre of population.

Following its discovery, 2023 DW was given a rating of 1 on the Torino scale, used to rate the risk of a NEO striking Earth, and a routine report was issue, resulting in the excitement along the media.

Scaled from 0 – No Hazard to levels 8, 9, and 10 – all of which signify an impact capable of causing anything from highly localised destruction through to a potential extinction-level event. The rating of 1 – which many news outlets… forgot … to report – is actually the normal rating for most newly-discovered objects.

A routine discovery in which a pass near Earth is predicted that poses no unusual level of danger. Current calculations show a collision is extremely unlikely with no cause for public attention or public concern. New telescopic observations very likely will lead to reassignment to Level 0.

– Torino Scale Level 1 rating

The possible track of 2023 DW were it to enter Earth’s atmosphere on February 14th, 2023

Further observations of 2023 DW in the last two weeks suggest it will pass Earth at a distance of 3 million km on February 14th, 2046. However, there is admittedly there is a 3-sigma uncertainty of +/- 6 million km on the precise distance at which the asteroid will pass, which means the Earth isn’t entirely clear of risk, but overall, it would appear that as the asteroid’s track is further understood, it will revert to zero on the Torino scale – however, it is possible that the risk of impact may actually increase briefly as the error ellipse is refined, prior to it finally levelling at zero.

Given the margin of error, some astronomers have attempted to calculate the potential track of any entry into the atmosphere should a collision be confirmed, with the most likely path running from Indonesia, across the Pacific Ocean and over Hawai’i before crossing Mexico and the United States, with break-up occurring somewhere over the Pacific rather than over land. However, were a collision to be confirmed, NASA has already demonstrated how an incoming asteroid can be deflected before and impact given enough time – and with an impact unlikely prior to 2026, there is plenty of time to take action with 2023 DW.

 Artemis Spacesuit Design Revealed

On March 15th, Axiom Space revealed a prototype of the spacesuits that are to be worn by astronauts going to cislunar space and the Moon as a part of Project Artemis – and it is very different to what has thus far been used by NASA.

The US space agency has long wanted to retire the current space suit system – which harkens all the way back to Apollo – but as reported in these pages, it has not exactly covered itself in glory in this area. After more than two decades of attempts to develop a new suit for  lunar and other missions, NASA sort-of had a design which it own Office of Inspector General (OIG) rated it as unsuitable for the job it was supposed to do.

Axiom Space chief engineer Jim Stein demonstrates a prototype of the Axiom AxEMU spacesuit intended to be used as a part of Project Artemis, and replace the current spacesuits used by non-Russian crews aboard the ISS. Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

So in early 2022, NASA turned to Axiom Space and to Collins Aerospace + ILC Dover – a company with a long history of spacesuit development with NASA –  to bid on a contract to develop a new spacesuit for Artemis, announcing in September and to the surprise of not a few, that newcomer Axiom had won the initial development contract of US $226 million.

The AxEMU suit, as it is known, is intended primarily for use on the Moon, but will also be used to replace the suits currently used by non-Russian crews on the ISS. It leverages much of the work NASA completed for its own suit design prior to the OIG nixing the work and time-frames involved in brining that entire project to fruition.

In particular, the suit uses a “back door” entry design – something the Soviet / Russian space programmes have long used – where the suit and backpack are fully integrated such that when the suit is hanging on a special rack, the backpack can be opened like a door, and the astronaut then slips into the suit and helmet, and once settled can close and seal the backpack in place, activating it.

A view of the back of the new AxEMU suit. To the right is Russell Ralston, deputy program manager for Extravehicular Activity at Axiom Space. Note the “hinges” on the backpack, allowing it to open so the astronaut and don / doff it. Via NASA TV.

This approach means that an astronaut can, if required, don and off the spacesuit without assistance. It also avoids the issue of having upper and lower halves (“jacket” and “trousers”, if you will), which must be struggled into (with assistance) and then locked together, with the joint and seam between the two a potential lunar dust trap. In addition, the integrated bubble helmet, with lights and digital cameras mounted either side of it also reduces the complexity of the suit and removes a further rear of risk of issues with lunar dust by removing the neck ring and joint mechanism common to US suit designs.

As revealed, the suit appeared to be black and blue with orange accents – what may seem to be an odd choice for use in space / on the Moon.  However, the colours were not representative of the final design – which will be the more familiar white (intended to reflect sunlight as a part of the suit’s thermal management); the covers used at the unveiling being designed to “conceal the suit’s proprietary design”. This is because, in a similar manner to contracts Boeing, Northrop Grumman and SpaceX, NASA is contracting Axiom as a service provider; the company will lease the suits to NASA, but retain ownership of them and offer them for use by future commercial customers.

The AxEMU showing the bubble helmet and surrounding lights and camera. Credit: Axiom Space

This latter point is important to Axiom because – as I’ve previously reported – the company intends to take over the mantle of space station operations from NASA in the 2030s, operating their own space station built off the back of the ISS. Axoim will therefore require use of their own suits for EVA work at their station – and they are unlikely to be alone in operating orbital facilities post-ISS; Blue Origin and Sierra Space are planning a station of their own – Orbital Reef – and so are also likely customers for the Axiom suits.

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