Although this week’s spectacular NASA night launch was all about the debut liftoff of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Artemis I mission is being performed by an all-new spacecraft called Orion.
There are currently three Orions in existence—one in space and two others being prepared for future lunar missions.
Here are seven things you need to know about NASA’S human-rated space capsule that will soon become the most distant-ever astronaut-rated spacecraft when it reaches 40,000 miles beyond the Moon during Artemis-I:
1. It’s built for astronauts
Although the Artemis-I mission won’t be crewed, it will test life support systems using mannequins ahead of Artemis-II and Artemis-III, the latter of which will take the first woman and the first person of color to the surface of the Moon.
Orion’s Crew Module area is designed for four astronauts—so a maximum of four sleeping bags. There are shades to go over all six windows of the capsule. It’s capable of supporting astronauts for maximum 21-day missions.
2. It comes in three parts
The Orion vehicle actually comes in three parts. Astronauts will remain in the central crew module. On top is the Launch Abort System, a safety feature that catapults the capsule to safety in the event of a rocket malfunction on the launch pad. It detaches and falls away after Orion reaches orbit.
Behind the crew module is is the European Service Module (ESM), which was built by the European Space Agency and provides all the life support systems (including water and oxygen) as well as propulsion and solar power.
This week’s mission is the first time a NASA spacecraft has been powered by European engineering. Artemis is not an all-American mission—it’s global.
3. It’s got 16 cameras
It’s the first spacecraft built for the multimedia age. “Each of Orion’s four solar array wings has a commercial off-the-shelf camera mounted at the tip that has been highly modified for use in space, providing a view of the spacecraft exterior,” said David Melendrez, imagery integration lead for the Orion Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
They will help engineers tweak the position of the solar arrays and give views of the module itself, but they’ll also capture “selfies” of Orion with the Earth or Moon in the background.
4. It’s only been tested in orbit once before
Orion had its first and only orbital test flight in 2014 when it launched from Florida on a Delta IV Heavy rocket and flew two orbits around Earth. The Exploration Flight Test-1 mission took 4.5 hours during which the spacecraft:
- reached an altitude of up to 15 times higher than the International Space Station.
- flew at speeds of 20,000 mph.
- endured temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it entered Earth’s atmosphere.
5. It will take Moon rock around the Moon
When the Orion spacecraft loops around the Moon it will be carrying a lot of mementos for educational engagement and posterity in its “Official Flight Kit.” Perhaps the most bizarre is a small Moon rock from Apollo 11 that also was aboard the final space shuttle flight in 2011. I
t will also fly an Apollo 8 commemorative medallion as well as a bolt from the Apollo 11 mission and a patch from Apollo 11.
6. It can survive getting half as hot as the Sun
Orion’s undercarriage features a 16.5 feet diameter heat shield designed to protect the spacecraft as it enters Earth’s atmosphere while traveling at 25,000 mph and enduring temperatures of almost 5,000°F.
That’s about half as hot as the Sun.
7. It’s next flight will be an iconic moment
After the Artemis-I mission comes Artemis-II, nominally in 2024. It will be the first crewed lunar flyby of the 21st century. Largely a crewed repeat of repeat of Artemis-1, but with have four astronauts on board to test Orion’s life support systems, Artemis-II will likely be a 10-day mission with two orbits of the Earth before going 4,600 miles beyond the far side of the Moon.
It will be the farthest humans have ever traveled into space.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.