Artemis and the return to the Moon

Return to the Moon: Artemis goes ahead after Russia declined to join the programme


05 | 05 | 2022


After unmanned flights, the Gateway station is due to be launched into lunar orbit by the end of 2024; the first human lunar landing will be no earlier than 2025.

In the picture

NASA drawing of the first unmanned flight of the Orion capsule of the Artemis I programme [NASA].

NASA's Artemis programme, in cooperation with space agencies from other countries and private companies, maintains its schedule of development(the latest adjustment was to delay the new human presence on the Moon to "no earlier" than 2025) despite international tension stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In response to the West's boycott of the Kremlin, Roscosmos has cancelled its partnershipwith ESA in French Guiana, and the Euro-Russian mission statementthat the two agencies were to launch to Mars in 2022 has been suspended. Moscow's refusal to join Artemis leaves this programme free from the direct consequences of the war, which may push for a closer space alliance between Russia and China.

On 14 April, during the third attempt at the Space Launch System (SLS) Wet Dress Rehearsal of the first mission statementof the Artemis programme, NASA was forced to abort again due to a faulty helium check valve. This testinvolves filling the fuel tank and igniting the huge RS-25 engines of the rocket's initial stage. Before starting a testof this magnitude, NASA performs numerous checks of all systems, and this is where the problem was identified. This first mission statementof the Artemis programme will be yet another step in the degree programexploration of the Moon and space; a degree programthat began six decades ago, and which we should review in order to better understand the ambitious goals of Artemis, at frameworkof the new space age.

Fortunately for Artemis, the challenges to be overcome are technical and, for now, not geopolitical. After the start of the Ukrainian war, three Russian cosmonauts joined the International Space Station with apparent normality, but the tension between Russia and the West in the wake of the invasion has already resulted in the breakdown of several space cooperation processes. The end of the Cold War had led to this partnershipand the US came to rely on its former enemy to get astronauts to the Space Station when it cancelled its shuttle system. But with rising international tensions, Russia had begun a drift away from joining Artemis and is increasingly siding with Beijing. China is likely to come to treat it as a lesser partnergiven the progressive weakening of the Russian programme.

The legacy of the Apollo programme

Precisely, the technical problems of the last weeks remind us that the degree programto conquer the Moon began in a major disaster, on 27 January 1967, on the now abandoned launch pad 34, when the astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died victims of a fire inside their capsule during the 'wireless test' that was carried out as the last phase before flying into space.

After such a shock, the capsule was completely redesigned, and several unmanned missions were carried out (just as Artemis I will be) in order to test the different systems and procedures required. While everyone knows who Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were, most people are unaware that before them there were 4 manned Apollo missions; and that after them, 10 more men set foot on the Moon, between 1969 and 1972. Apollo 7 and Apollo 9 were responsible for testing in Earth orbit the two spacecraft that made up the mission statement; the modulecommand and modulelunar. Apollo 8 was the first time a human being left the Earth's gravitational field, flying into lunar orbit during Christmas 1968. This mission statementwould be repeated by Apollo 10 in May 1969, as a general essayfor Apollo 11, which landed in July of that year at Tranquility Base.

After this success, which marked the Soviet defeat in the degree programattempt to conquer the Moon, the Apollo 12 to 17 missions put another 10 men on the Moon (all except the crew of Apollo 13), in a new stage of unprecedented exploration, leaving us a legacy that is also forgotten to this day. In terms of science, the Apollo 15 of Dave Scott, Jim Irwin and Alfred Worden stood out, which after its findingof a mineral called anorthosite, confirmed to academic communitythe theory that the Moon is in fact a fragment of our planet, detached after an impact millions of years ago. In addition to this, the technology that was developed for the programme is also found in many elements of modern life: vacuum-packed food, digital flight control (and the vast majority of electronic control systems), the shock absorption systems designed for the mighty Saturn V that are now used in the construction of buildings at testfor earthquakes, or even the use of reflective material blankets for thermal insulation.

Artemis: the next step

The Artemis programme will depart with an unmanned mission statement, with the primary objective of goalto test the operation of the SLS propulsion systems, which, once in Earth orbit, will propel the Orion capsule towards the Moon. After entering orbit, it will spend about 6 days testing many of the spacecraft's systems at test, before firing up the engines that will propel it back to Earth.

Should Artemis I be a success (which implies that an infinite list of procedures will go according to plan), it will be succeeded by Artemis II, the programme's first manned mission statement, which will be a combination of Apollo 8 and 13. Using so-called Trans-Lunar Injection (ignition of the rocket booster to take the spacecraft out of the Earth's gravitational field), the spacecraft will be put on what is called a 'free-return trajectory'. This means that the capsule will be given a trajectory whereby it will fly into the Moon's gravitational field, pass around the Moon without entering orbit, and return to Earth without additional propulsion. In this way, the first crew of the programme will not reach the Moon. Furthermore, on its return, it will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at Mach 32 (that is, in flight terms, about 38,000 km/h), putting the capsule's heat shield, made of ablative materials to protect the astronauts from the high temperatures of re-entry (which are close to 2,900 Degrees), at test.

The central objectives of the programme are very clear: firstly, the establishment of permanent instructionson the Moon for a sustainable long-term stay deadline; and once this has been achieved, to make it an enclave from which future missions to Mars and other outer space destinations can be undertaken. To this end, the programme initially envisages placing a space station, distinct from the International Space Station, in lunar orbit. This station - called Gateway - will have many functions in support of missions to the Moon, but will not be comparable to the ISS. Instead, in addition to orbiting the Moon in a halo orbit, it is envisaged to serve as a base core topicfor outer space exploration. Its assembly is a partnershipbetween different national space agencies and private companies such as SpaceX. The station is scheduled to begin assembly between late 2023 and 2024 and to be launched into lunar orbit by the end of 2024. This means that the first mission statementto land on the Moon will likely be delayed from initial plans of 2024, because as the Chief Administrator commented in November last year, "returning to the Moon as quickly and safely as possible is a priority for the agency. However, with recent demand and other factors, it is likely that the first human landing under Artemis will not be before 2025". It is therefore to be expected that this return to the surface of the satellite will not be seen until late 2025-2026.

In addition to Gateway, the other major new feature of Artemis concerns the supply systems that will be taken to the Moon. The Apollo missions carried everything they needed for their brief 3-day stay individually, and then left everything unnecessary behind. Artemis, on the other hand, envisages a supply system through private companies that will prepare everything in advance, so that when the astronauts arrive they will already have their scientific materials, supplies and living facilities there.

deadlineAt final, with the advances that the Artemis programme has been making in recent months, it is likely that we will again see human beings set foot on the Moon in three or four years' time, this time with the intention of staying for the long term deadlineand converting the Moon into an enclave from which to carry out missions to outer space and thus continue exploring the universe. As can be seen, the Artemis programme has a very important base inherited from the Apollo programme, from which it has taken all the knowledge in terms of flight plans, technical materials and knowledgescience.