As NASA noted on Friday, the space agency and its contractors are working diligently on the first launch of the heavy-lift Space Launch System. The launch, officially called EM-1 or Exploration Mission 1 will loft an unpiloted version of the Orion spacecraft around the moon. NASASpaceFlight.com also noted on Friday that a number of secondary payloads, known as CubeSats, will be along for the ride as well. NASA considered EM-1, scheduled for 2018, a crucial step in its Journey to Mars which will, it is hoped, reach its ultimate destination sometime in the 2030s.
The first launch of the SLS will be the most ambitious NASA mission since the Apollo program. It is designed to prove the systems that will take people back into deep space for the first time in about five decades.
“SLS and Orion will blast off from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s modernized spaceport at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The spacecraft will deploy its solar arrays and the SLS upper stage, called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). This will give Orion the big push needed to leave Earth’s orbit and travel toward the moon. From there, Orion will separate from the ICPS. The ICPS will then deploy a number of small satellites, known as CubeSats, to perform several experiments and technology demonstration.
“As Orion continues its path from Earth orbit to the moon, it will be propelled by a service module provided by the European Space Agency, which will supply the spacecraft’s main propulsion system and power (as well as house air and water for astronauts on future missions). Orion will pass through the Van Allen radiation belts, fly past the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation and above communication satellites in Earth orbit. To talk with mission control in Houston, Orion will switch from NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay System satellites and, for the first time for a human spaceflight vehicle in decades, communicate through the Deep Space Network.
“The outbound trip to the moon will take several days, during which time engineers will evaluate the spacecraft’s systems and, as needed, correct its trajectory. Orion will fly about 62 miles (100 km) above the surface of the moon, and then use the moon’s gravitational force to propel Orion into a new deep retrograde, or opposite, orbit about 40,000 miles (70,000 km) from the moon.
“The spacecraft will stay in that orbit for approximately six days to collect data and allow mission controllers to assess the performance of the spacecraft. During this period, Orion will travel in a direction around the moon retrograde from the direction the moon travels around Earth.
“For its return trip to Earth, Orion will do another close flyby that takes the spacecraft within about 60 miles of the moon’s surface, the spacecraft will use another precisely timed engine firing of the European-provided service module in conjunction with the moon’s gravity to accelerate back toward Earth. This maneuver will set the spacecraft on its trajectory back toward Earth to enter our planet’s atmosphere traveling at 25,000 mph (11 kilometers per second), producing temperatures of approximately 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) – faster and hotter than Orion experienced during its 2014 flight test. The spacecraft will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the San Diego coast.”
Since the SLS will have such vast lift capacity, it will carry a number of CubeSats, small space probes packed with electronics designed to perform specific tasks. Each of the three CubeSats will address certain questions surrounding human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit.
Biosential will study the effects of radiation on various organisms in cis-lunar space. The results of these studies will be compared to results of other studies done on the International Space Station and on Earth. Radiation is a hazard future astronauts will face on long-term deep space missions, such as to Mars.
Lunar Flashlight will fly over permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles and fire a laser into them. Then an onboard two-channel near Infrared spectrometer will be able to observe and characterize the ice deposits scientists believe reside in those craters. Lunar ice would supply future lunar settlements and would be a source of rocket fuel for deep space missions.
Finally, the Near Earth Asteroid Scout would use a solar sail to fly to an NEA, that being an asteroid that crosses the orbit of the Earth, within one AU distance from Earth. It will examine the asteroid and its size, rotational state, surface properties, and interaction environment. Asteroids are also sources of resources. A large enough asteroid could also threaten life on Earth if it were found to be on collision course with the home planet.