Deploying four solar arrays spanning about 63 feet, NASA’s Orion spacecraft is on a path to the Moon after the Artemis I rocket blasted off on its test flight with three dummies aboard early on Wednesday, November 16, 2022. After years of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Artemis I launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars.
Hitting 160 km/h within seconds, the Space Launch System (SLS) Moon rocket carrying the Orion capsule, built by Lockheed Martin, soared skyward, proving it is the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of carrying more payload to deep space than any other vehicle. With its unprecedented power and capabilities, NASA’s Artemis I mission is planned to travel approximately 40,000 miles beyond the Moon and return to Earth over 25 days.
Apollo’s sister takes us back to the Moon
The first Artemis mission got underway in the early morning hours when the rocket’s four shuttle-derived RS-25 core-stage engines, built and upgraded by Aerojet Rocketdyne, ignited, helping the massive SLS rocket lift off from Launch Pad 39B. Designed to handle some of the most extreme temperatures as they move massive amounts of propellants to generate enough energy for the rocket to escape Earth’s gravity, the four RS-25 engines have numerous 3D printed components that collaborate towards reducing the engine’s overall production costs by nearly 35% while maintaining performance, reliability, and safety.
In total, Aerojet provided 39 propulsive elements for the Artemis I mission (38 liquid engines and one solid rocket motor), as well as 14 high-pressure tanks. For much of its propulsion, Aerojet has been using metal AM, a technology that has been part of the company for over two decades. In addition, both time and resources have been invested in 3D printing processes, like laser powder bed fusion (LPBF), to successfully design and integrate propulsion systems into a wide range of spacecraft.
Artemis and more 3D printed parts
Additionally, two solid rocket boosters provide more than 75% of the vehicle’s thrust during the first two minutes of flight. Like the RS-25 engines, the boosters, made by Northrop Grumman, are modified heritage component designs from the shuttle program and benefited from additive manufacturing to make them compatible with the SLS orbital carrier.
In 2020, Northrop shipped ten rocket motor segments to the Kennedy Space Center from Promontory, Utah. The motor segments were assembled into two solid rocket boosters that went to space yesterday. Developed by Northrop’s Northern Utah team, the twin solid rocket boosters that propelled the SLS craft with a powerful 7.2 million pounds of thrust rely on 3D printing and computer modeling. This technology is becoming increasingly commonplace for the enterprise.
Building on a legacy
Following core stage separation and a roughly 40-minute coast phase, the SLS’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne-built RL10B-2 engine generating 24,750 pounds of thrust, took over, performing the first of two planned burns to put Orion in a stable orbit above Earth.
Aerojet’s RL10 has been the premier upper-stage rocket engine for over 50 years in the US. Known as the launch industry’s workhorse, it was first tested in 1959 and has helped to send spacecraft to every planet in our solar system, including Voyager 1 and New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft to leave Earth orbit. The RL10B-2 is derived from the original RL10 and incorporates 3D printing technology to keep production costs down while also enjoying the performance and design capabilities of the technology.
After reaching its initial orbit, Orion deployed its solar arrays, and engineers began performing checkouts of the spacecraft’s systems. Then, about an hour and a half into the flight, the rocket’s upper stage engine successfully fired for approximately 18 minutes to give Orion the big push needed to send it out of Earth orbit and toward the Moon.
Over the next several hours, a series of 10 small science investigations and technology demonstrations aboard CubeSat’s deployed from a ring that connected the upper stage to the spacecraft. Each CubeSat has its mission that has the potential to fill space knowledge gaps or demonstrate technologies that may benefit the design of future missions to explore the Moon and beyond.
Orion’s service module will also perform the first of a series of burns to keep it on a course toward the Moon approximately eight hours after launch. The capsule is expected to fly by the Moon on November 21, performing a comparative approach to the lunar surface on its way to a distant retrograde orbit, a highly stable orbit thousands of miles beyond the Moon.
“This successful launch means NASA and our partners are on a path to explore farther in space than ever before for the benefit of humanity,” said Jim Free, NASA deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate.
Through Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the surface of the Moon, paving the way for a long-term lunar presence and serving as a stepping stone for astronauts on the way to Mars. The first Artemis launch marks the beginning of one of the most talked-about space programs this decade. If all goes well, the next rocket launch mission, known as Artemis II, will happen no earlier than 2024 and will carry four astronauts around the Moon. Artemis III will follow with a crewed landing mission.
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