Artemis mission: NASA loses contact with the Orion spacecraft for 47 minutes

A portion of the far side of the Moon looms large just beyond the Orion spacecraft.

Image: NASA

NASA’s mission control center communications link with the Artemis I Orion spacecraft suffered an outage of nearly an hour during its journey to a “distant retrograde orbit” around the Moon.

Mission control in Houston lost data to and from Orion at 00:09 CST for 47 minutes as engineers were reconfiguring the communications link between the spacecraft and the Deep Space Network.

The engineers are now conducting a root cause analysis to understand why the signals unexpectedly failed despite testing the procedure multiple times over the past week.

“This is why we test,” said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, after the link was restored.

The data was not lost as it was recorded on Orion’s onboard systems. The Command and Data Handling Officer (C&DH) – the office that will manage Orion’s display interfaces for future manned Artemis II missions – will link the 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 reserves and is 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 in the opposite direction of Earth’s orbit of the Moon.

Also: What is Artemis? Everything you need to know about NASA’s new moon mission

NASA needs to conserve Orion’s fuel for fix and propulsion burns for its flyby past the Moon and back to Earth when it lands in the Pacific Ocean around Dec. 8.

NASA expects Orion to leave the DRO on December 1, after which it will begin a powered flyby of the Moon on December 5.

“The spacecraft will reach its closest distance to the Moon on Friday, Nov. 25, just before performing its next major fire to enter orbit,” NASA said in an update Wednesday.

“The distant retrograde orbit insertion is the second of a pair of maneuvers needed to propel Orion into the highly stable orbit that requires minimal fuel consumption during the trip around the Moon,” he explained.

Another interesting test that NASA is conducting as Orion moves towards DRO is the “prop splosh” test, or testing the effect that splashing propellant has on Orion’s trajectory and orientation as it moves through space. The tests take place after each close pass of the Moon burns, both outward and return. This allows engineers to compare data when the spacecraft is carrying different volumes of liquid propellant, which is difficult to model on Earth due to differences in gravity.

To get the liquid flowing, NASA will use Orion’s reaction control thrusters, which sit on the sides of the service module, and can be turned on and off to move the spacecraft and get the propellant flowing.

“These motors are in fixed positions and can be fired individually as needed to move the spacecraft in different directions or rotate it to any position. Each motor provides approximately 50 pounds of thrust,” NASA explains.

By Monday, November 21, after the Orion outbound flyby of the Moon, it had used 3,715.7 pounds of propellant. NASA says Orion had used about 3,971 pounds of propellant on Wednesday, Nov. 23.

“There is more than 2,000 pounds of headroom available over what was anticipated for use during the mission, an increase of about 74 pounds over what was anticipated before launch,” NASA notes, suggesting that the spacecraft and maneuvers so far they have been more efficient than expected.

Also: After the Moon flyby, what’s next for NASA’s Artemis I Orion spacecraft?

Separately, the Artemis I Space Launch System (SLS) rocket deployed 10 small CubeSats inside Orion last week. One of them, BioSentinel, completed its lunar flyby on Tuesday. It is being used to study the impacts of space radiation on yeast, one of Orion’s “biological passengers”.

The idea is to test biological matter in preparation for human travel on “ever-further, longer-duration missions to destinations like Mars,” according to Mars. NASA is testing two yeast strains in deep space because yeast shares similarities with human cells and wants to find out how human cells are affected by long-term radiation exposure in deep space.

“DNA damage can often be repaired by cells in a very similar process between yeast and humans,” notes NASA.

A yeast strain tested in space is natural. The other was selected because he has difficulty repairing his DNA.

“By comparing how the two strains respond to the deep-space radiation environment, researchers will learn more about the health risks posed to humans during long-term exploration and be able to develop informed strategies to reduce the potential damage,” says NASA.

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