NASA’s mission control center communications link with the Artemis I Orion spacecraft suffered a nearly hour-long outage during its journey into a “distant retrograde orbit” around the moon.
Mission control in Houston lost data to and from Orion for 47 minutes at 00:09 a.m. CST while engineers reconfigured the communications link between the spacecraft and the Deep Space Network.
Engineers are now conducting root cause analysis to understand why signals failed unexpectedly, despite testing the technique multiple times over the past week.
“That’s why we’re testing,” said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, after connectivity was restored.
The data has not been lost as it was recorded on Orion’s shipboard systems. The Command and Data Handling Officer (C&DH) – the office that will handle Orion’s display interfaces for future manned Artemis II missions – will downlink data recorded during the outage as part of its analysis.
“There was no impact on Orion and the spacecraft remains in a healthy configuration,” NASA said in an update.
Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO) optimizes Orion’s fuel supplies and that’s where the spacecraft will remain stable for the next few weeks. Objects in DRO are balanced between the gravitational pull of the earth and the moon. The “retrograde” part refers to Orion traveling around the Earth in the opposite direction to the Moon’s orbit.
Likewise: What is Artemis? Everything you need to know about NASA’s New Moon Mission
NASA needs to conserve Orion’s corrective and propulsion burn fuel for its moon flyby and travel back to Earth when it will splash down in the Pacific Ocean around December 8th.
NASA plans for Orion to leave DRO on December 1st, after which it will begin a powered flyby of the Moon on December 5th.
“The spacecraft will reach its furthest distance from the Moon on Friday, November 25, just before it performs its next major orbit entry burn,” NASA said in an update Wednesday.
“The distant retrograde orbit insertion is the second of two maneuvers required to place Orion in the highly stable orbit that requires minimal fuel burn in the trip around the moon,” it explained.
Another interesting NASA test conducted as Orion moves toward DRO is the “prop splash” test, or testing the effect that propellant sloshing has on Orion’s trajectory and orientation as it moves through moves space. The tests will take place after each flyby of the moon has burned – both outward and return. This allows engineers to compare data when the spacecraft carries different volumes of the liquid propellant, which is difficult to model on Earth due to differences in gravity.
To slosh the liquid, NASA will use Orion’s reaction control thrusters, located on the sides of the service module, which can be turned on and off to move the spacecraft and slosh the propellant.
“These thrusters are in fixed positions and can be fired individually as needed to propel the spacecraft in different directions or rotate it to any position. Each engine delivers about 50 pounds of thrust,” NASA explains.
As of Monday, November 21, Orion had used 3,715.7 pounds of propellant after its flyby of the moon. NASA says that as of Wednesday, November 23, Orion had used about 3,971 pounds of propellant.
“There is more than 2,000 pounds of margin over what is planned for use during the mission, an increase of about 74 pounds over what is expected before launch,” NASA notes, hinting that the spacecraft and maneuvers were previously more efficient than modeled.
Also, after the moon flyby, what’s next for NASA’s Artemis I Orion spacecraft?
Separately, the Artemis I Space Launch System (SLS) rocket dropped 10 small CubeSats in the Orion last week. One of them, BioSentinel, completed its lunar flyby on Tuesday. It is used to study the effects of space radiation on yeast – one of Orion’s “biological passengers”.
The idea is to test biological matter in preparation for the human journey on “ever-farther, longer-duration missions to destinations like Mars,” according to Mars. NASA is testing two strains of yeast in space because yeast share similarities with human cells and they want to find out how human cells are affected by long-term exposure to radiation in space.
“Often, DNA damage can be repaired by cells in a process that is very similar in yeast and humans,” NASA notes.
A yeast strain tested in space is natural. The other was chosen because he has trouble repairing his DNA.
“By comparing how the two strains respond to the radiation environment in space, researchers will learn more about the health risks humans face during long-term exploration and be able to develop informed strategies to reduce potential harm,” says the NASA.
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