Artemis II Laser Communications

Artemis II Will Phone Home From The Moon Using Laser Beams

[NASA] Astronauts will be testing the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O) to transmit live, 4K ultra-high-definition video back to Earth from the Moon. The system will also support communication of images, voice, control channels, and enhanced science data.

Aboard Orion, the space terminal includes an optical module, a modem, and a control system.  The optical module features a four inch telescope on a dual gimbal mount. The modem modulates digital information onto laser beams for transmission back to Earth, and demodulates data from laser beams recieved from Earth. The control system interfaces with avionic systems aboard Orin to control and point the communications telescope.

On Earth, facilities including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the White Sands Complex will maintain high-bandwidth optical communication links with Orion. Information received from Orion will be relayed to mission operations, scientists, and researchers.

NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) showcases the benefits of optical communications.  Traditionally, missions relied upon radio communication, but improved technology will better serve space missions that generate and collect ever-increasing quantities of data. Optical communication solutions can provide 10 to 100 times the bandwidth of radio frequency systems. Other improvements may include increased link distances, higher efficiency, reduced interference, improved security, and reductions in size and weight. Our Brief History of Optical Communication outlines many of these advantages.

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Thinking Inside The Box

Last week, I wrote about NASA’s technology demonstrator projects, and how they’ve been runaway successes – both the Mars rovers and the current copter came from such experimental beginnings. I argued that letting some spirit of experimentation into an organization like NASA is probably very fruitful from time to time.

And then a few days later, we saw SpaceX blow up a rocket and completely shred its launch platform in the process. Or maybe it was the other way around, because it looks like the concrete thrown up by the exhaust may have run into the engines, causing the damage that would lead to the vehicle spinning out of control. SpaceX was already working on an alternative launch pad using water-cooled steel, but it ran what it had. They’re calling the mission a success because of what they learned, but it’s clearly a qualified success. They’ll rebuild and try again.

In comparison, the other US-funded rocket run by Boeing, the SLS suffered years of delays, cost tremendous amounts of money, and has half the lift of SpaceX’s Super Heavy. But it made it to space. Science was done, many of the CubeSats onboard got launched, the unmanned capsule orbited the moon, and splashed down safely back on earth. They weren’t particularly taking any big risks, but they got the job done.

The lore around SpaceX is that they’re failing forward to success. And it’s certainly true that they’ve got their Falcon 9 platform down to a routine, at a lower cost per launch than was ever before possible, and that their pace has entirely shaken up the conservative space industry. They’ll probably get there with their Starship / Super Heavy too. SLS was an old-school rocket, and they had boring old flame diverters on their launch pad, which means that SLS will never take off from Mars. On the other hand, one of the two systems has put a payload around the Moon.

Maybe there’s something to be said for thinking inside the box from time to time as well?

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Hackaday Links: December 4, 2022

Well, this is embarrassing! Imagine sending a multibillion-dollar rover to an ancient lakebed on Mars only to discover after a year of poking around at the rocks that it might not actually have been a lake after all. That seems to be the impression of Jezero Crater that planetary scientists are forming after looking at the data coming back from Perseverance since it nailed the landing in what sure as heck looked like a dried-up lake, complete with a river delta system. A closer look at the sediments Perseverance has been sampling reveals a lot of the mineral olivine, which on Earth is rare near the surface because it readily reacts with water. Finding lots of olivine close below the surface of Jezero suggests that it either wasn’t all that watery once upon a time, or that what water was there was basically ice cold. The results are limited to where the rover has visited, of course, and the nice thing about having wheels is that you can go somewhere else. But if you were hoping for clear signs that Jezero was once a lake teeming with life, you might have to keep waiting.

In other space news, we have to admit to taking NASA to task a bit in the podcast a couple of weeks back for not being quite up to SpaceX’s zazzle standards with regard to instrumenting the SLS launch. Yeah, a night launch is spectacular, but not having all those internal cameras like the Falcon has just sort of left us flat. But we should have been more patient, because the images coming back from Artemis 1 are simply spectacular. We had no idea that NASA attached cameras to the solar panels of the Orion spacecraft, which act a little like selfie sticks and allow the spacecraft to be in the foreground with Earth and the Moon in the background. Seeing Earth from lunar distance again for the first time in 50 years has been a real treat, and getting our satellite in the frame at the same time is a huge bonus.

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Hackaday Links: November 20, 2022

Lots of space news this week, with the big story being that Artemis I finally blasted off for its trip to the Moon. It was a spectacular night launch, with the SLS sending the crew-rated but vacant — well, mostly vacant — Orion spacecraft on a week-ish long trip to the Moon, before spending a couple of weeks testing out a distant retrograde orbit. The mission is already returning some stunning images, and the main mission goal is to check out the Orion spacecraft and everything needed for a crewed Artemis II lunar flyby sometime in 2024. If that goes well, Artemis III will head up in 2025 with a crew of four to put the first bootprints on the Moon in over 50 years.

Of course, like the Apollo missions before it, a big part of the crewed landings of the Artemis program will likely be the collection and return of more lunar rock and soil samples. But NASA likes to hedge its bets, which is perhaps why they’ve announced an agreement to purchase lunar regolith samples from the first private company to send a lander to the Moon. The Japanese start-up behind this effort is called ispace, and they’ve been issued a license by the Japanese government to transfer samples collected by its HAKUTO-R lander to NASA. Or rather, samples collected on the lander — the contract is for NASA to take possession of whatever regolith accumulates on the HAKUTO-R’s landing pads. And it’s not like ispace is going to return the samples — the lander isn’t designed to ever leave the lunar surface. The whole thing is symbolic of the future of space commerce, which is probably why NASA is only paying $5,000 for the dirt.

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CAPSTONE: The Story So Far

After decades of delays and false starts, NASA is finally returning to the Moon. The world is eagerly awaiting the launch of Artemis I, the first demonstration flight of both the Space Launch System and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which combined will send humans out of low Earth orbit for the first time since 1972. But it’s delayed.

While the first official Artemis mission is naturally getting all the attention, the space agency plans to do more than put a new set of boots on the surface — their long-term goals include the “Lunar Gateway” space station that will be the rallying point for the sustained exploration of our nearest celestial neighbor.

But before launching humanity’s first deep-space station, NASA wants to make sure that the unique near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) it will operate in is as stable as computer modeling has predicted. Enter the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE.

CAPSTONE in the clean room prior to launch.

Launched aboard an Electron rocket in June, the large CubeSat will hopefully become the first spacecraft to ever enter into a NRHO. By positioning itself in such a way that the gravity from Earth and the Moon influence it equally, maintaining its orbit should require only periodic position corrections. This would not only lower the maintenance burden of adjusting the Lunar Gateway’s orbit, but reduce the station’s propellant requirement.

CAPSTONE is also set to test out an experimental navigation system that uses the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) as a reference point instead of ground-based stations. In a future where spacecraft are regularly buzzing around the Moon, it will be important to establish a navigation system that doesn’t rely on Earthly input to operate.

So despite costing a relatively meager $30 million and only being about as large as a microwave oven, CAPSTONE is a very important mission for NASA’s grand lunar aspirations. Unfortunately, things haven’t gone quite to plan so far. Trouble started just days after liftoff, and as of this writing, the outcome of the mission is still very much in jeopardy.

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NASA Turns To Commercial Partners For Spacesuits

When NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station have to clamber around on the outside of the orbiting facility for maintenance or repairs, they don a spacesuit known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU). Essentially a small self-contained spacecraft in its own right, the bulky garment was introduced in 1981 to allow Space Shuttle crews to exit the Orbiter and work in the craft’s cavernous cargo bay. While the suits did get a minor upgrade in the late 90s, they remain largely the product of 1970s technology.

Not only are the existing EMUs outdated, but they were only designed to be use in space — not on the surface. With NASA’s eyes on the Moon, and eventually Mars, it was no secret that the agency would need to outfit their astronauts with upgraded and modernized suits before moving beyond the ISS. As such, development of what would eventually be the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) dates back to at least 2005 when it was part of the ultimately canceled Constellation program.

NASA’s own xEMU suit won’t be ready by 2025.

Unfortunately, after more than a decade of development and reportedly $420 million in development costs, the xEMU still isn’t ready. With a crewed landing on the Moon still tentatively scheduled for 2025, NASA has decided to let their commercial partners take a swing at the problem, and has recently awarded contracts to two companies for a spacesuit that can both work on the Moon and replace the aging EMU for orbital use on the ISS.

As part of the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract, both companies will be given the data collected during the development of the xEMU, though they are expected to create new designs rather than a copy of what NASA’s already been working on. Inspired by the success of the Commercial Crew program that gave birth to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the contract also stipulates that the companies will retain complete ownership and control over the spacesuits developed during the program. In fact, NASA is even encouraging the companies to seek out additional commercial customers for the finished suits in hopes a competitive market will help drive down costs.

There’s no denying that NASA’s partnerships with commercial providers has paid off for cargo and crew, so it stands to reason that they’d go back to the well for their next-generation spacesuit needs. There’s also plenty of incentive for the companies to deliver a viable product, as the contact has a potential maximum value of $3.5 billion. But with 2025 quickly approaching, and the contact requiring a orbital shakedown test before the suits are sent to the Moon, the big question is whether or not there’s still enough time for either company to make it across the finish line.

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NASA’s Giant SLS Rocket Rolled Back For Repairs

There’s little debate that the most exciting move in a rocket’s repertoire is when it launches itself skywards on a column of flame. But failing that, it’s still pretty interesting to see how these massive vehicles get juggled around down here on terra firma before getting fired off into the black. Which is great for anyone interested in NASA’s towering Space Launch System (SLS), as it’s been doing an awful lot of milling about on the ground for a vehicle designed to return humanity to the Moon.

Most recently, the SLS completed a trek from the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to launch pad 39B and back again aboard the same “crawler” that moved the Space Shuttle and Saturn V before it. While the nearly 60-year-old tracked vehicle has received some updates to carry the 98 meter (322 ft) tall booster, clearly the space agency subscribes to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought.

The ICPS being loaded onto the SLS

The SLS itself however is definitely in need of some work. The rocket was brought out to the pad for the first time on March 18th, where it was to conduct what’s known as a “wet dress rehearsal” — a test of the pre-flight operations, propellant loading, and countdown that includes everything except engine ignition. Unfortunately, the test was plagued with technical issues, and after three attempts, it was decided to bring the rocket back into the VAB to make the necessary repairs to both it and the ground support equipment.

One issue involves a valve in the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), a propulsion module that’s being used on the early SLS flights to provide the trans-lunar injection (TLI) burn that will send the Orion spacecraft on a course towards the Moon. As the name implies, the ICPS is destined to be replaced with the larger Exploration Upper Stage on later missions. There’s also a leak on the launch tower itself that will need to be addressed. After the identified problems are repaired and some adjustments are made, the SLS will once again be rolled out to the pad to reattempt the launch rehearsal.

Now in development for over a decade, the Space Launch System has been plagued with technical issues and delays. At the same time, commercial launch providers like SpaceX have moved the state of the art forward considerably, leading many to wonder if the mind-bogglingly expensive rocket will be able to compete with in-development vehicles such as Starship and New Glenn. The fact that missions which were previously assigned to the SLS have started to get shifted over to commercial rockets would seem to indicate that even NASA is losing confidence in their flagship program.