NASA is elated as Orion exceeds expectations during its first lunar flyby

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NASA’s Orion spacecraft has exceeded expectations as it enters the 15th day of its journey, which officials confirmed earlier today during a news conference. Currently orbiting the Moon, the ship is part of the Artemis 1 mission, a test flight that will test its various systems. During its journey, Orion has reached the furthest point from Earth of a spaceship designed to fly humans—a significant feat given the complex design when compared to other private spacecraft due to the stringent life support and communications requirements.

Due to Orion’s stellar performance, NASA added additional test targets beyond what the mission was originally designed for. This included testing Orion’s thermal capacity and its solar arrays, both of which have specific requirements for the situation in which they must be placed.

After conducting these tests, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission manager Mike Sarafin shared their findings and added that based on these tests, his agency will now add more tests to the spacecraft mission.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft generates more power than is needed to allow teams flexibility during the mission

The star of Artemis 1misison is the European Orion Service Module (ESM). This is an integral part of the spaceship, as does the heavy lifting required to propel it to the moon and back. The unit uses nine engines, with one primary thrust and eight secondary thrusters. Of these, the primary engine is one already used in the space shuttle, and this lineup will continue to power the spacecraft for the first five missions of the Artemis program.

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The discussion was joined by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Orion European Service Module Program Manager, Philippe Delo. Share important spacecraft stats, confirming that it is generating more power than is required. The NASA administrator had previously made this clear at a previous press conference. According to him, not only does the solar array produce 15% more power than is required, but the power consumption is also lower since the ESM is designed for higher internal temperatures.

The higher temperature requires less energy for heaters and leaves more energy for other elements—a crucial advantage for long trips, especially to the moon. Mr. Delo added that the propulsion system as a whole also works flawlessly, although it is difficult to work with on the ground. Additionally, keeping the solar arrays open also leaves them open to small meteorite damage, so the extra power makes the ship safer.

The Orion spacecraft’s motion control thrust ignited during its flight around the Moon. Image: NASA

While Orion was making its distant retrograde orbit, NASA added two more test targets. With the spacecraft now on track to leave that orbit and begin its journey back to Earth, Mr. Sarafin shared that the agency will now add more targets that will test Orion’s pressure systems and thrusters.

According to him:

Additional goals in all of these things will happen after we exit distant retrograde orbit. We’re going to cycle and monitor the leak rates in the pressure control assembly, so that’s the helium used to pressurize the fuel tanks just to understand the leak rate that’s going on, as we cycle those valves. Understanding that over longer and longer periods is very important.

And once we get the propulsion system after the December 5th powered return trip and what they call detonation, where you don’t need pressure to increase the pressure of the tanks, gives us an opportunity to understand that. We’re also looking at increasing the rate of parking maneuver to basically bring the car up to four degrees per second.

Another test goal will enable engineers to lose some handling requirements to see if they can save on the onboard fuel, added Chris Edlin, NASA’s deputy director of Orion vehicle integration.

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And as far as the previous thermosphere test is concerned, Mr. Sarafin shared his results and details of an ongoing anomaly:

We found that the camera gets hot on the crew unit adapter when we fly at a certain altitude. In terms of extra fun, the only other thing that’s still there is that we have this on the power system as we discussed earlier. Air conditioning units and disturbing. There is something called a latching current limiter. We’ve had another unwanted open event, so we’re up to nine iterations of that. The abnormal error resolution team is still reviewing, and we’re working on an error tree to understand what the hardware is telling us. The redundancy and the level of redundancy that we have on the spacecraft along with the fact that every single one of those is not having an impact or recovering from it is not really a concern as it relates to our ability to achieve this mission.

Orion will return from the Moon on December 11th, after it performs a complex skipping process to enter a “jump” into Earth’s atmosphere.

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