The most powerful rocket ever built will soon be on its way to the Moon, taking a plethora of satellites and radiation tests with it.
This month on Zoom, biology student Luis Zea was all smiles as he described his experiment results. He was preparing the spacecraft for launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. However, not just any rocket will suffice for the equipment needed to examine how the genes of yeast react to cosmic rays. The Space Launch System, developed by NASA, is the most powerful rocket ever created, and it will be carrying it on its maiden voyage (SLS).
On August 29th, if all goes as planned, the SLS will blast off from its launch pad and send a small, uncrewed capsule into space. The Orion capsule will travel farther than any human-made spacecraft ever has, circling the Moon and returning to Earth 42 days later. NASA intends to utilize the capsule to take astronauts to the Moon in the upcoming years, thus the test flight is vital. This will mark the first-time humans have ventured beyond low-Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 crew returned from the Moon in 1972.
Zea’s experiment, along with several others, will be stowed away under a seat on Orion during the test trip. According to Zea, an aeronautical engineer from the University of Colorado Boulder, “we have entered a new era of spaceflight sciences research.”
The goal is to get as much as possible out of the test flight that will cost more than $4 billion. Two miniature satellites will map the Moon’s icy surface, a solar sail will head towards an asteroid, and humanoid mannequins will evaluate the effects of radiation on the human body. Some experiments will make a trip to the Moon and return, while others will be sent out into space. One of them, a tiny Japanese lander, is even meant to touch down on the Moon; if successful, Japan would become the fourth country to have soft-landed on the Moon.
NASA is calling this maiden flight in the Artemis program. It was given the name Artemis, after Apollo’s mythological sister, to show that it represents the continuation of NASA’s historic Apollo program, which first put humans on the Moon. Beginning in 2024 at the earliest, the Artemis 2 spacecraft will transport humans on a circumlunar flight around the Moon. Also, in 2025 or later, the first woman astronaut will make history by landing on the Moon with the Artemis 3 mission.
On the day of Artemis 1’s launch, the SLS will be propelled into the sky by two solid rocket boosters and four powerful engines before separating from Orion and crashing into the ocean with its empty fuel tanks. The smaller, European-built propulsion system will be used to send the capsule on its way to fly past the Moon.
At various points along the way, scientists plan to initiate studies in the hopes of gaining useful data. The spaceship will release 10 cubesat satellites into space within hours of liftoff. However, five of these haven’t had their batteries charged since being fastened to the rocket in Florida, and in some cases that was more than a year ago. Researchers are concerned that the cubesats won’t be able to start up because their batteries won’t have enough juice.
Assuming a smooth launch, two of the cubesats will perform complementary mapping of the lunar surface’s ice. NASA is looking into lunar ice because it could one day be used as a resource by human explorers and also because it provides a frozen record of the history of the Solar System. Spacecraft in orbit have already confirmed the presence of ice in the Moon’s polar regions, where it forms in dark craters. The crew of the Artemis 3 spacecraft plans to land in the south pole in order to investigate this ice, most likely in one of the 13 areas identified by NASA as being of particular interest. However, the location and quantity of the ice on the Moon remain unknown to scientists.
One of the cubesats searching for ice on the Moon will fly past the south pole on Artemis 1, where it will get an up-close look for hydrogen ice. The LunaH-Map project will create the most detailed map to date of neutrons, which show the location of hydrogen (see “Mapping the Moon’s ice”). Planetary scientist and mission lead researcher Craig Hardgrove from Arizona State University in Tempe said, “That will tell us where the water ice is.” The Lunar IceCube cubesat is designed to map ice by detecting telltale signs of water in the infrared spectrum. To further our understanding of the ice distribution, it will supplement LunaH-neutron Map’s maps.
The Japanese lander constitutes the third cubesat. The Omotenashi spacecraft is designed to descend straight onto the Moon’s surface before releasing a small airbag-cushioned probe. The probe will free-fall to the ground, where it will try to make contact with Earth and take radiation readings. According to Tatsuaki Hashimoto, the project manager of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in Sagamihara, the lunar lander will weigh only 700 grams, making it the world’s lightest lunar probe.
As an alternative to the Moon, another cubesat, the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, will travel to an asteroid. It will deploy a solar sail with an area of 86 square meters, which is effectively a tissue-thin membrane, and move across space by harnessing the force of sunlight, much how a boat uses the wind to move. The small asteroid 2020 GE is its intended destination. If all goes well, months after the Artemis 1 launch, the scout will glide slowly around the asteroid, snapping pictures and gathering data about the object’s composition. Julie Castillo-Rogez, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the mission’s primary science investigator, said that the fly-by will test a new camera and novel methods of compressing and sending data from deep-space missions.
Orion will continue on its journey past the Moon with other experiments still on board to study the effects of radiation on living things. The Orion capsule will enter deep space, and then Zea can begin her experiment. Pumps will activate and begin pushing a special culture fluid into bags with freeze-dried yeast after it is far enough from Earth’s protective magnetic field to be exposed to potentially harmful space radiation. After around three days, the yeast will have grown to their maximum size and devoured all the liquid, at which point they will die. After Orion crashes into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, Zea and his team will collect the bags to analyze the DNA of the yeast to see how much damage was done by the radiation.
The results will be compared to those of a similar experiment flown on the International Space Station next year, which will be subjected to significantly less radiation. Future astronauts’ health could be improved by learning which genes are most damaged by radiation and whether or not yeast DNA contains mechanisms to repair the damage, says Zea. Seventy percent of yeast’s important genes are also present in humans.
Female mannequins equipped with radiation monitors will also be strapped into Orion’s seats for additional radiation studies. Unlike Helga, who won’t be protected, Zohar will be wearing a protective vest. The German Aerospace Center in Cologne is heading up an experiment to better measure the impacts of radiation on the human body, notably the effects on women, whose bodies are more vulnerable to deep-space radiation than men’s. Ramona Gaza, a radiation biologist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, hopes that “when we explore space further, we will hopefully be able to acquire more knowledge on the disparities.”
Due to the fact that women reach the radiation barrier earlier in their careers, the current NASA radiation limit for astronauts affords male astronauts more opportunities to fly. Palestinian official Gaza says the organization is working on establishing a new norm that would be less biased towards female astronauts. If NASA wants to achieve its goal of increasing women’s participation in lunar exploration, this is a must.