After months of waiting, between technical problems and the threat of a hurricane, Artemis 1 finally got underway, symbolizing the uncrewed mission to return to the Moon. It is the flagship mission of NASA’s Artemis program, which plans at the end of 2025 to bring the first woman and first black person to the moon. 61 years after the launch of the Apollo program and more than half a century after the moon landing, another spacecraft has left Earth’s orbit to return to pave the way for new astronaut missions and the construction of the first lunar base.
“Seeing the SLS rocket and Orion capsule together for the first time was an amazing sight,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. With the prospect of a lunar base, the construction of the Gateway space station in lunar orbit and future missions to Mars, what makes the difference with the past is the strong presence of Europe: thanks largely to the European Space Agency (ESA). Creation of the European Service Module (ESM) for the Orion capsule, built by Lockheed Martin. The Italian contribution to the service module is significant, with the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and industry. Josef Ashbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency, said that this is the first time that European technology has provided energy for a US spacecraft.
Returning to the Moon is also a hope for astronauts: for Luca Parmitano, of the European Space Agency, “When the rocket took off, I thought the Moon had never looked so close to me.” On Platform 39B of the Kennedy Space Center, at Cape Canaveral, the largest rocket ever built, the Space Launch System (SLS), ignited its engines with a delay of about 40 minutes due to a faulty radar cable and was replaced. “But here we were calm: the launch window was large enough and the problem was insignificant,” said Bernardo Batti, director of the European Space Agency’s Space Exploration Programme, who followed the launch from Cape Canaveral. Welcomed by a huge crowd and a huge round of applause at the control centre, the launch went perfectly and soon after it was the turn of the second test: the solar panels of the Orion capsule, built by Thales Alenia Space in Italy (Thales-Leonardo) to generate the energy needed to power the vehicle. Once in Earth’s orbit, Orion passed the third test: decoupling from the upper stage of the SLS rocket and saying goodbye to Earth for entering the trajectory towards the Moon, thanks to the European Service Module. Thus began the 64,000-kilometre journey in which Orion will remain in orbit around the Moon before returning to Earth after a mission of 25 and a half days.
The mission involves launching ten CubeSats, tiny satellites the size of a shoebox: some will have to collect scientific data, others to demonstrate technologies useful for upcoming lunar missions. Starting eight hours after launch, and hurtling towards the Moon, Orion will have to perform a series of maneuvers to stay on track. It is scheduled to reach lunar orbit on November 21, a few thousand kilometers from the lunar surface. The Orion capsule will remain in orbit around the Moon for about a week, while its engines will help it maintain the correct position, so that its seven-meter photovoltaic panels are always directed towards the Sun. Then the journey back to Earth will begin, which will end on December 11th. Re-entry will happen at 12 kilometers per second, which is very fast compared to the eight kilometers per second at which low-orbit vehicles enter Earth’s atmosphere. The European service module will burn up on impact with the atmosphere, while the pressurized module intended to house the future crew will splash out in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California.
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