NASA says Orion’s heat shield seemed wonky after the Artemis 1 lunar mission

NASA engineers inspect Orion’s heat shield shortly after the Artemis 1 mission.
picture: NASA

Orion group Several records during the Artemis 1 mission to the Moon, in addition to surviving temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit during atmospheric re-entry. The spacecraft’s innovative heat shield made this possible, but NASA’s follow-up analysis of the protective layer revealed levels of wear and tear that the models had not predicted.

“Orion has exceeded all performance expectations,” Howard Ho, Orion program manager, told reporters yesterday at a NASA news conference to discuss the latest Artemis 1 results. He said more than 160 flight test targets had been achieved, of which 21 were added during the mission as managers got “better performance than expected”. the The uncrewed Orion capsule littered in the Pacific Ocean on December 11, 2022, after a 26-day trip to the moon and back.

During inspections and analysis, investigators noticed some unexpected differences across Orion’s heat shield. “Some of the charred material faded differently than what our computer models predicted and what our ground tests predicted,” Hu said. “More of this charred material was released during re-entry than we would have expected.”

A dedicated investigation has been launched on the matter, and while NASA is “working hard to learn more about this,” overall there is “a lot of work to be done on this investigation going forward,” he explained, adding that it’s a big job correlating data. It’s not immediately clear how many more charred material came out than expected – “that’s the analysis we need to do,” Hu said. Investigators will need to individually examine each heat shield block, of which there are more than 180.

Orion is intended to carry astronauts, but the unpredictable performance is not a safety issue, according to Hu. He said that “a great deal of margin” was left, and that he “doesn’t think we’ve reached any limits in terms of the margin perspective”. The heat shield did its job and then some, but since this behavior wasn’t predicted by models, it’s something NASA should investigate now. Hu explained that NASA wants to make sure it has the best possible heat shield to protect human passengers during upcoming missions.

Engineering works on Orion's Artemis 2 heat shield.

Engineering works on Orion’s Artemis 2 heat shield.
picture: NASA

Upon returning from the Moon, Orion rammed into Earth’s atmosphere at up to 24,600 mph (39,590 kph). This produced temperatures in excess of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which the heat shield proved capable of handling. The heat shield uses tiles made of an abrasive material called Avcoat to protect the capsule and crew during atmospheric reentry. NASA explained on Dec. 8 that the death machine “burns in a controlled manner during reentry, transferring heat away from the spacecraft.” press release. The new Avcoat tiles are 1 to 3 inches thick, covering the outside of the heat shield.

Ho said the engineers expected some charring in the traction material, but that small pieces flaking off, rather than melting (that is, burning in a controlled manner) was a surprise. “We want to understand that,” he said.

Despite this issue, NASA officials said the space agency is moving forward with the planned Artemis 2 mission, which will have a crew of astronauts. Repairs are underway at the launch pad, a new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is being built, and the next Orion capsule is set for tests, where most of it has already been assembled. Like Artemis 1, the Artemis 2 mission will see the Orion capsule journey around the Moon and back, with the big difference being that an actual crew will be included.

Speaking to reporters during the briefing Tuesday, Jim Frye, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said that preparations for Artemis 2 “continue to move forward” and that this is the time to continue our vigilance, “so that we” understand the risks involved. Encouragingly, there is nothing in the Artemis 1 post-flight analysis that gives NASA any reason to change the launch date of Artemis 2, scheduled for late November 2024, Free said.

Artemis 3 – a manned mission to the lunar surface – is planned for late 2025, but Free warned that key milestones must be met to make this happen, a testament to Giant Starship vehicle from SpaceXas a launch vehicle and as a lunar lander, in addition to the space agency receiving Lunar suits ordered from Axiom Space.

more: SpaceX is closer than ever to a Starship’s first orbital flight

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