Artemis Program: Airbus to Build Third Module for Orion Moon Mission


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The European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) continue working together on what is considered a modern-day version of the Apollo program. Better known as Artemis, the program that takes its name from the Greek goddess of the hunt and twin sister to Apollo, is expected to return the next man and first woman to the Moon by 2024. One of its basic components is NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which will carry crew to and from lunar orbit. At the heart of the Artemis spacecraft is the European Service Module (ESM), which is critical as it will provide electricity, water, and air to the crew capsule, as well as maintain temperature for life support.

Aerospace giant Airbus has already built two service modules for Orion with hardware from companies throughout Europe, and now they have signed a new contract with the ESA for a third ESM module. The new €250 million contract (277 million dollars) will ensure ESA’s necessary continuity in NASA’s Artemis program.

The ESM is the powerhouse of the Orion spacecraft, responsible for pushing the capsule through space, by providing propulsion energy, consumable storage to sustain the crew onboard, and navigation control for the journey to the Moon and back.

“Our know-how and expertise will enable us to continue to facilitate future Moon missions through international partnerships,” said Andreas Hammer, Head of Space Exloration at Airbus. “By working together with our customers ESA and NASA as well as our industrial partner Lockheed Martin, we now have a reliable planning basis for the first three lunar missions. This contract is an endorsement of the joint approach combining the best of European and American space technologies.”

Spacecraft Orion (Credits: Airbus)

The service module is being built by Airbus at its Bremen facilities in Germany and incorporates the work of hundreds of people from Airbus, partner companies, and ten European nations that are involved in the program.

According to Airbus, during the development and construction of the ESM, the company chose to re-use unique technologies and expertise from the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which provided the crew onboard the International Space Station (ISS) with regular deliveries of test equipment, spare parts, food, air, water, and fuel. ATV is considered one of the most powerful automatic space vehicles ever built and without the occasional re-boosts which ATV provides, the ISS would slow sufficiently to fall from its orbit back to Earth, making it an ideal source for Orion’s service module.

Cylindrical in shape, the ESM is close to four meters in diameter and height, with four solar arrays that expand to 19 meters across when unfurled, capable of generating enough energy to power two households. Weighing a total of just over 13 tonnes, the service module’s 8.6 tonnes of fuel can power one main engine and 32 smaller thrusters.

David Parker, ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, said that “by entering into this agreement, we are again demonstrating that Europe is a strong and reliable partner in Artemis. The European Service Module represents a crucial contribution to this, allowing scientific research, development of key technologies and international cooperation – inspiring missions that expand humankind’s presence beyond low Earth orbit.”

Airbus claims that more than 20,000 parts and components are used in each ESM, from electrical equipment to engines, solar panels, fuel tanks, and life support supplies for the astronauts, as well as approximately 12 kilometers of cables.

The aerospace giant is known to use additive manufacturing (AM) technologies for prototyping and manufacturing parts. At their facility in Hamburg, Germany, the company is applying 3D printing to cut down costs and lead time, while the company’s production site in Bremen, where the ESM will be developed, has been using 3D printing materials and processes for many years. In 2018, Peter Sander, a 3D printing expert in the Emerging Technologies and Concepts department at Airbus, told BremenInvest that “3D printing is now used throughout the company […] everyone has recognized that 3D printing has great potential.”

Airbus has been supporting ESA as a prime contractor on human spaceflight missions for over a decade and the ESA-Airbus collaboration has already supplied a service module for the first of this project’s missions. This first service module was delivered to NASA in November 2018 and has already been mated with the Crew Module. The fully integrated spacecraft already finished the thermal-vacuum testing at NASA’s facility in Ohio and returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. While a second service module is now being integrated and tested by Airbus in Bremen, with delivery set for the first half of 2021.

Orion spacecraft for Artemis prepared for thermal test at NASA (Credits: Airbus)

To get a glimpse of what is to come, NASA and ESA said that the lunar spacecraft that comprises ESA’s service module I and NASA’s Orion crew capsule will be used for uncrewed certification flights late next year. While Artemis II will see astronauts board Orion for a loop around the Moon, Artemis III will be the mission that attempts to make a landing on the lunar surface, and the newly contracted service module will be a key piece of the mission hardware.

In the 1970s, Apollo missions have mainly landed in the Laminated equatorial area of the Moon, but there is much more to explore, like the poles and the dark side of the Moon. As the backbone of the spacecraft, this new service module development not only seals the ongoing international collaboration in space but also pulls Europe into the missions that are planned to go beyond low Earth orbit, with the hopes that eventually an ESA astronaut will be part of an Orion crew.

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