Midway through NASA’s Artemis 1 mission, it broke a record
On Monday, NASA’s Orion spacecraft reached its greatest distance from Earth, reaching 268,563 miles from our planet. This marks the middle of the path of 25.5 day Artemis I missionand the spacecraft will now continue its orbit around the Moon before heading back to Earth.
“Artemis I was an outstanding success and completed a series of history-making events,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at a press conference, noting that Orion was the first spacecraft designed to carry humans to enter a distant retrograde lunar orbit and that it broke the record for the longest distance traveled from Earth by a human-powered spacecraft.
During Orion’s orbit around the moon, which will last about a week, it will collect data on the conditions human astronauts can expect to experience on future Artemis missions. Of particular concern is the cosmic radiation that astronauts will be exposed to once they leave Earth’s protective magnetosphere.
Orion carries one mannequin and two torsos which are packed with sensors to detect the radiation levels they are exposed to. The manikin (or, if you must, “Moonikin”) is named after Arturo Campos, the NASA engineer who was instrumental in returning the Apollo 13 crew home after the spacecraft’s explosion in 1970. The manikin occupies the command seat of the spacecraft and is weighted to simulate a human being. It also wears the same spacesuit that future Artemis astronauts will wear, and the seat has sensors to detect acceleration and vibrations to give an idea of what the ride will be like during launch and re-entry.
The two torsos in flight are part of a radiation protection measure experiment called the Matroshka AstroRad Radiation Experiment (MARE). Named Helga and Zohar, they are designed to mimic the body composition of an adult male and female. Radiation detectors are embedded in the materials to see which specific organs and areas of the body will be exposed to the most radiation. One of the torsos, Zohar, will wear a radiation shielding vest called the AstroRad, which is designed to protect the most critical organs but still allow the astronauts to move freely while performing their duties. The results from the two torsos will be compared to see how effective the vest is at protecting against radiation.
Data from all these sensors will not be available until the spacecraft returns to Earth. “We’re looking forward to learning what all these sensors are going to tell us so we can put four human beings on top of Artemis II,” Nelson said.
The two riskiest parts of a space mission are launch and landing. With the Artemis hardware successfully booted, the focus is now on the re-entry process. Before the descent, scheduled for December 11, the Orion spacecraft will be traveling at 24,500 miles per hour. It will sink into the upper atmosphere before rising again to slow down. It will then enter the atmosphere for descent, traveling at 17,000 mph. Orion will be slowed by parachutes before falling into the Pacific Ocean, where it will be retrieved by US Navy ships.
Nelson emphasized the importance of this mission as a test before placing human astronauts in the spacecraft. “It’s a test,” Nelson said. “And that’s what we do. We highlight it and test it.