When the Artemis 1 moon mission launches Monday morning from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, three humanoid figures in space suits will be along for the ride.
The high-tech crash test dummies — properly spelled “manikins” in this scientific context and named Zohar, Helga and, in the captain’s chair, Commander Moonikin Campos — have been equipped with sensors for everything from vibration to radiation. They are there because Artemis 1 is the first in a series of moon missions that eventually aims to put an outpost space station in lunar polar orbit before sending a crewed mission to the surface and back.
The Orion spacecraft is scheduled to blast off atop the massive new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket no earlier than 8:33 ET, with a two-hour launch window. If all goes to plan, Orion will make its closest pass of the moon this Saturday and overshoot it, then settle into orbit and return to Earth in October.
The real prize, though, is a Mars shot, still at least more than a decade away. This is the goal that unifies the scientific agenda and sets the research priorities of a generation of planetary scientists. So in addition to the manikins, the scientific payload on Artemis 1 includes carefully prepared and packaged seeds, yeast, algae and four strains of fungus, for precise measurement of how the radiation of space affects DNA-based cellular life.
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Through an industry partnership, it also includes a laptop running both the personal assistant Alexa and the Webex by Cisco video conferencing software, to see how well it communicates with Houston.
Crucially, it includes several scientific experiments that will deploy on small shoebox-sized satellites called CubeSats to study the surface of the Moon and deduce its composition.
The highest priority experiment, however, is the new heat shield that will protect Orion on its record high velocity re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, faster and hotter even than the Space Shuttle, expected to reach about 2,760 degrees Celsius.
“It’s no longer the Apollo generation, it’s the Artemis generation,” said Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator, at a pre-launch press briefing. “Here we are, we’re going back to the moon but we’re going to live and learn and develop new technologies, because we’re eventually going to Mars.”
In the last year or so, Nelson said, NASA has already landed a truck-sized rover on Mars, flown a helicopter in thin atmosphere, and received the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, which like Hubble sees light that has been travelling as long as the universe has existed.
This reflects the technological and scientific momentum Artemis aims to harness, after the failure of the Constellation program, with also tried to go back to the moon. Former U.S. president Barack Obama launched the Artemis program in 2010, setting 2033 as a target date for humans on Mars. Two administrations later, Nelson said it is looking like the Mars landing will be later in the 2030s.
There is a lot to learn in advance. Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science directorate, recalled a favourite photograph of Buzz Aldrin doing a science experiment during his time on the surface of the Moon in 1969, deploying a piece of aluminum foil to collect the solar wind that was blazing across the moon’s surface at 400km/s. It was a perfect illustration of the astronaut as scientist.
One key mission is to investigate where natural resources, such as water or minerals, might be available on the moon.
“It’s those resources, of course, that are really unexpected in the picture of the moon that we had in the past,” Zurbuchen said.
Water, for example, has been detected on the moon and two of the CubeSats on board will map that water in different ways, one using neutrons, the other infrared spectrometry.
Another CubeSat, called NEA Scout, will deploy solar sails measuring 86 square metres that will carry it, for fully two years, toward a near-Earth asteroid, which it will then photograph and analyze for its shape, volume, rotational properties, debris and dust field, and surface appearance.