The Artemis program for the Moon is taking shape, a breath of fresh air for Europe?

“This time it’s not just about planting our flag and making our mark. We will establish a base for a mission to Mars. And maybe a day after. On December 11, 2017, Donald Trump, then President of the United States, put the Moon back in the heart of American space exploration. With this goal, given a year and a half later by the voice of its Vice President, Mike Pence, to sign the return of Man on our 2024 natural satellite.

Very optimistic. Too much, estimated last November 9. Bill Nelson, former astronaut and head of NASA. The Artemis program, born of this new course set by Donald Trump, has not been abandoned for all that. It even passed an important milestone on March 18, with the arrival of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The new American heavy launch vehicle will play a central role in the Artemis missions.

General examination on 3 April

The rocket, with the Orion spacecraft on board, still has to undergo a series of tests. On April 3, this will include loading more than 3 million gallons of cryogenic fuel and repeating each step of the countdown until the last 10 seconds without triggering the engines. The rocket will then be drained of fuel to demonstrate a safe interrupted launch.

If these tests are crucial, then it will be a matter of moving on to the first launch to the Moon. This will be the Artemis I mission, the starting point of the program. “Two launch windows are advanced, between 7 and 21 May or more likely, between 6 and 16 June,” said Philippe Deloo, Head of Orion’s European Service Module (ESM) Program at the European Space Agency ( ESA). Very shortly after launch, SLS will separate from its upper stage, where Orion is located, and leave the spacecraft to continue its journey to the Moon. The duration of the journey is another unknown to date. Two options are on the table depending on the launch date, says Philippe Deloo. “Orion could either make a single fraction of an orbit around the Moon before it began to return to Earth – the mission would then last 28 days – or a full orbit plus a fraction of an orbit before resuming its journey back to Earth – for a journey of 42 days. “

A warm-up round before a first manned flight announced for 2024

Artemis I will be empty, with no astronauts aboard the Orion, designed to hold a maximum of four. We can then see this mission as a warm-up round. “A test of the propulsion systems and electrical systems of the SLS and Orion vessel,” specifies Philippe Deloo. ESA will pay particular attention to this. And with good reason, NASA is not embarking on this program alone. The European Space Agency is also involved, especially in the design of Orion. If the capsule where the four astronauts are to take place is left to the American Lockheed Martin, ESA, via its company Airbus, will be in charge of the spacecraft’s service module: ESM. A key element as it must provide air, water, electricity, but also the thermal regulation and propulsion necessary for the success of Artemis missions and the survival of astronauts.

Diagram of the Orion spacecraft that will be used for the manned missions of the Artemis program.  The ship's service module is provided by the European Space Agency.
Diagram of the Orion spacecraft that will be used for the manned missions of the Artemis program. The ship’s service module is provided by the European Space Agency. – @ESA

This first mission is to follow Artemis II, scheduled for spring 2024. With astronauts on board this time, but without landing on the moon yet. The mission will “only” consist of bringing a crew of American and Canadian astronauts into lunar orbit before returning to Earth. It will therefore be necessary to wait for Artemis III to see astronauts tread on the lunar surface again. A woman and a colored person, NASA predicts. The date is still unclear. In early March, NASA Inspector Paul Martin said evoked at best 2026. Either way, Artemis is not just aiming to step on the Moon again. The idea is also to install the Gateway space station in the lunar orbit. It will allow missions to the Moon and will serve as an advanced base on the way to Mars. In order to transport and assemble it, it will therefore be necessary to dedicate new Artemis missions.

“The only program that is not challenged by the current situation”

Enough to provide long-term work to ESA. A breath of fresh air in connection with extreme tensions with Russia, which will not spare the space sector until it causes a new postponement of the European mission ExoMars2020? “Artemis is the only program that is not being questioned or turned upside down,” said Didier Schmitt, coordinator of human and robotic research at ESA. The European Agency has already been tasked with providing six service modules for the first six planned missions. “A contract whose value is close to 2 billion euros”, Philippe Deloo and Didier Schmitt clarify. And discussions are underway on the production of three more, for Artemis 6 to 9. “

Above all, the European contribution to Artemis is not limited to ESMs. ESA is also supplying several Gateway modules, most notably the “I-Hab”, the future station’s primary residential module. But also “Spirit”. This second module will provide improved communication, refueling capacity and even a window to observe Space *, describes ESA. These modules are built by Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between French Thales and Italian Leonardo. They are to be delivered in 2027, as part of Artemis IV for “I-Hab” and a year later, under Artemis V, for Esprit.

Already three tickets to the Gateway for European astronauts

The icing on the cake gives these US-European collaborations ESA the opportunity to negotiate seats on Artemis flights for its astronauts. She has already achieved three flights aboard the Gateway and does not despair of getting more, especially in exchange for further collaborations within the framework of Artemis. Until one hopes that one day a European will set foot on the Moon? “Negotiations are underway,” Didier Schmitt said.

Leave a Comment