NASA shows completed SLS moon rocket, Webb telescope – Spaceflight Now


On Friday, NASA’s Space Launch System rocket inside the vehicle assembly building at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

Two of NASA’s flagship missions about to finally launch, representing more than $ 50 billion in US government investment over decades, were presented to the media on Friday at space ports in Florida and French Guiana.

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Friday, journalists and photographers were given access to the vehicle assembly building to view the space launch system’s first fully stacked rocket, a towering 98-meter-tall launcher designed to propel the astronaut crews to the moon. for the first time since 1972.

More than 3,900 kilometers to the southeast, media representatives visited the Guiana Space Center, managed by Europe, on the north coast of South America. Spaceport technicians near Kourou, French Guiana, prepare the James Webb Space Telescope for take-off from an Ariane 5 rocket.

The space launch system, with its Orion crew capsule payload, is expected to launch on February 12 from the Florida space coast during an unmanned test flight around the moon. The launch will be the first mission of NASA’s Artemis program, an initiative to bring astronauts back to the moon’s surface later this decade.

The SLS test flight is a milestone in a 10-year development that began in 2011, when Congress ordered NASA to design and build a massive rocket using technology left by the space shuttle fleet at retirement from the agency. NASA awarded Lockheed Martin the contract to develop the Orion spacecraft in 2006 as part of the agency’s Lunar Constellation program, which was canceled in 2010.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft on top of the Space Launch System rocket on Friday. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

NASA kept the Orion program alive through two major restructurings of the agency’s deep space exploration efforts, first under the Obama administration, when Congress and the White House agreed to pivot NASA’s attention to a human mission to Mars, with an interim crewed expedition to an asteroid. .

The Trump administration has postponed NASA’s moon exploration program. NASA nicknamed the lunar program Artemis, naming it after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.

Through it all, the Orion program has survived. NASA’s Inspector General reported earlier this year that the agency had spent $ 12.8 billion to develop the Orion spacecraft since 2012, plus an additional $ 6.3 billion committed to the program during the previous decade as part of the Constellation program.

The Artemis 1 mission will be the second space flight for an Orion capsule and the first mission to fly an Orion spacecraft to the moon. This is the first flight of the European-built service module of the Orion spacecraft, which provides electricity and propulsion for the capsule in deep space.

The NASA Inspector General said in April that the agency had budgeted $ 18.8 billion for the SLS program since 2012. An additional $ 4.8 billion over the same period has been spent on preparing for Kennedy Space Center ground infrastructure for SLS and Orion missions.

If the Artemis 1 test flight goes well, NASA hopes to launch the Artemis 2 mission no earlier than the end of 2023. This mission, using the second SLS rocket, will carry three NASA astronauts and a Canadian astronaut on a trajectory around the other side of the moon and back to Earth, reaching a distance from Earth farther away than anyone has flown before.

The James Webb Space Telescope in a clean room Friday at the Guyanese Space Center. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

The James Webb Space Telescope, finally completed after more than 20 years of work, awaits its launch from a facility cut into the Amazon jungle of South America.

The observatory is expected to drive an Ariane 5 rocket into space on December 18, heading into an orbit around Lagrange’s L2 point nearly one million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.

Webb is folded into the launch configuration to accommodate the payload envelope of its Ariane 5 rocket. The observatory stands approximately 34.4 feet (10.5 meters) in height and will weigh nearly 14,000 pounds (approximately 6,200 kilograms) fully powered for take off.

The mission cost more than $ 10 billion, including contributions from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

NASA bears most of the cost, about $ 9.7 billion, including development spending and funding commitments for five years of operation. ESA is providing instrument hardware and the Webb launcher, and Canada has built the fine guidance sensor and spectrograph for the observatory.

After launch, the observatory will begin a breakthrough sequence of deployments to expand its solar panel, high gain antenna, and mirror segments. Webb also has a five-layer lens hood to protect its mirrors, detectors, and scientific instruments, keeping the telescope cooler than minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 223 degrees Celsius.

Made from aluminum-coated Kapton, each layer of the lens hood is as thin as a human hair. The umbrella will expand to the size of a tennis court once Webb is in space.

Credit: A view of the primary mirror segments on the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

The observatory’s infrared instruments will scan the oldest and most remote regions of the universe to study some of the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang more than 13.5 billion years ago.

Astronomers will also use Webb to examine how galaxies form and evolve, to study the birth of stars, and to learn more about the atmospheres of planets that may be hospitable for life outside our solar system.

Webb will be the largest space telescope ever launched, with a primary mirror made up of 18 gold-coated beryllium segments extending to a diameter of 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) when opened a few weeks after take-off. This is almost three times the width of the Hubble monolithic primary mirror.

Ten years ago, the Obama administration and Congress set three priorities for NASA in the 2010s: launching new commercial crew and freight transport to help use the International Space Station, developing SLS spacecraft and Orion and complete the construction of Webb.

At the time, NASA was aiming to launch the first commercial crew flight to the space station in 2017. The space agency said the first SLS / Orion test flight was scheduled for 2017 and the launch of Webb was scheduled for 2018.

SpaceX launched its first astronaut flight to the space station on May 30, 2020, aboard the company’s private Crew Dragon spacecraft, ending a nearly nine-year gap in US manned space flight capability. United since the last shuttle launch in 2011.

During the nine-year interval, NASA purchased trips for astronauts to the space station on Russian ferries from the Soyuz crew.

NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing for commercial crew contracts in 2014, and spent about $ 5 billion in federal funds to help finance the development of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.

Both programs suffered delays, but commercial crew contracts were established as fixed price agreements, meaning the contractor was responsible for paying for cost overruns. This is not the case in the NASA contracts for Webb, SLS and Orion.

The center stage of NASA’s SLS lunar rocket is covered with an orange foam skin to insulate the propellant tanks that will contain super-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen. The nose cones of the rocket’s two side solid fuel boosters – derived from the boosters used on the Space Shuttle – are also visible. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has yet to launch with astronauts on board and has yet to complete a successful unmanned demonstration mission to the space station before NASA approves the capsule to carry a crew.

While Webb is expected to return scientific data to Earth within six months of launch, NASA and its contractors will still have work to complete before officials can declare development completed on the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft.

The Orion capsule flying during the Artemis 1 mission will not be equipped with all of the astronaut’s cockpit screens or fully functional life support systems. NASA will present those from the Artemis 2 mission.

The first three SLS flights will be launched with an interim cryogenic upper stage derived from the second stage of the United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4-Heavy rocket.

NASA and Boeing, prime contractors of the SLS core and upper stages, are still in the early stages of the multi-billion dollar development of a large exploration upper stage, which would improve the rocket’s cargo carrying capacity. for lunar missions.

The new upper stage will be powered by four Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engines, instead of the single RL10 engine mounted on the middle cryogenic stage.

But the first SLS rocket with the exploration stage, called the SLS Block 1B variant, won’t launch until 2026, according to a report released last year by NASA’s internal watchdog.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.

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