Artemis Moon Program Taking Shape, Breath of Fresh Air for Europe?

“This time it’s not just about planting our flag and leaving our mark. We will create a base for a mission to Mars. And maybe in a day. On December 11, 2017, Donald Trump, then President of the United States, returned the Moon to the American Space Research Center. To this end, given a year and a half later in the voice of its Vice President Mike Pence, to sign the return of Man to our natural satellite from 2024.

Very optimistic. Too much, estimated on November 9 last year, Bill Nelson, a former astronaut and head of NASA. The Artemis program spawned by this new course set by Donald Trump, however, has not been abandoned. It even passed a major milestone on March 18 when a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket arrived at its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The new US heavy launcher is set to play a central role in Artemis missions.

Dress rehearsal April 3rd.

The rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft has yet to undergo a series of tests. On April 3, this will involve loading it with over 3 million liters of cryogenic fuel and repeating each stage of the countdown to the last 10 seconds, without starting the engines. The rocket will then be de-fueled to demonstrate a safe aborted launch.

If these tests turn out to be final, then we will talk about the transition to the first flight to the moon. This will be the Artemis I mission, the starting point of the program. “Two launch windows are envisaged: from May 7 to 21 or, more likely, from June 6 to 16,” says Philippe Deloo, head of the Orion European Service Module (ESM) program at the European Space Agency (ESA). Shortly after liftoff, the SLS will separate from the upper stage where Orion is located and leave the spacecraft to continue its journey to the Moon. The duration of the journey is also unknown to date. According to Philip Deloo, depending on the launch date, two options are being considered. “Orion can either make one part of an orbit around the Moon before starting its return to Earth – then the mission will last 28 days – or a complete orbit plus part of the orbit before resuming the path to Earth again – for a path of 42 days. »

A warm-up lap ahead of the first manned flight announced for 2024.

Artemis I will be empty, with no astronauts aboard the Orion, which is designed to accommodate a maximum of four people. Then we can consider this mission as a warm-up. “Testing the propulsion and electrical systems of the SLS and the Orion,” Philippe Deloo clarifies. ESA will pay special attention to this. And for good reason, NASA is not embarking on this program alone. The European Space Agency is also involved, in particular, in the development of Orion. If the capsule, which will house four astronauts, is entrusted to the American Lockheed Martin, then ESA, through its company Airbus, is responsible for the service module of the spacecraft: ESM. The central element, as it must provide the air, water, electricity, as well as the thermoregulation and propulsion system necessary for the success of the Artemis missions and the survival of the astronauts.

Schematic of the spacecraft
Scheme of the Orion spacecraft, which will be used for manned flights under the Artemis program. The ship’s service module was provided by the European Space Agency. – @ESA

This first mission is to follow Artemis II scheduled for spring 2024. This time with astronauts on board, but without landing on the moon yet. The mission will “simply” carry a crew of US and Canadian astronauts into lunar orbit before returning to Earth. Therefore, it is necessary to wait for Artemis III to see the astronauts walking on the lunar land again. A woman and a person of color, NASA predicts. The date remains unclear. In early March, Paul Martin, NASA Inspector General, called 2026 at its best. In any case, Artemis doesn’t just want to set foot on the moon again. The idea is also to install a Gateway space station in lunar orbit. It will link missions to the Moon and serve as a forward base en route to Mars. Therefore, for its transportation and assembly, it will be necessary to dedicate new missions to Artemis.

“The only program that is not hindered by the current situation”

Enough to give ESA a long-term job. A breath of fresh air in the context of extreme tensions with Russia, which does not spare the space sector, up to a new postponement of the European mission ExoMars2020? “Artemis is the only program that is not challenged and turned on its head,” said Didier Schmitt, human and robot research coordinator at ESA. The European Agency has already been tasked with providing six service modules for the first six planned missions. “A contract worth close to 2 billion euros,” Philippe Deloo and Didier Schmitt specify. And negotiations are underway on the production of three more, for Artemis from 6 to 9.

First of all, the European contribution to Artemis is not limited to ESM. ESA is also supplying several gateway modules, notably “I-Hab”, the main residential module of the future station. But also Spirit. This second module will provide improved communications, refueling capability, and even a space observation window*, ESA describes. These modules are being built by Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between France’s Thales and Italy’s Leonardo. They should be delivered in 2027 as part of Artemis IV for I-Hab and a year later, during Artemis V, for Esprit.

Already three Gateway tickets for European astronauts

The icing on the cake is that this US-European collaboration allows ESA to negotiate seats on Artemis flights for its astronauts. She has already received three flights on Gateway and does not despair of getting more, including in exchange for additional cooperation within Artemis. Until you hope that one day a European will set foot on the moon? “Talks are underway,” said Didier Schmitt.

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