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GeekWire

The year in aerospace: Why 2022 could be Year One

A few years from now, we just might look back at 2022 as Year One for a new age in aerospace: It was the year when NASA’s next-generation space telescope delivered the goods, when NASA’s moon rocket aced its first flight test, and when an all-electric passenger plane built from the ground up took to the skies.

I’ve been rounding up the top stories in space on an annual basis for 25 years now (starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997), and 2022 ranks among the biggest years when it comes to opening up new frontiers on the final frontier. The best thing about these frontier-opening stories — especially the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis moon program — is that the best is yet to come.

Check out my top-five list for the big stories of the past year, plus five aerospace trends to watch in the year ahead.

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GeekWire

Orion’s round-the-moon odyssey ends with splashdown

NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule passed its final exam today, surviving a fiery atmospheric re-entry and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at the end of a round-the-moon test flight.

The 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission set the stage for future moon trips with astronauts aboard, 50 years after the last Apollo moon mission.

“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon comes to a close,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said as Orion settled in the waters off the coast of Baja California at 9:40 a.m. PT. “Orion, back on Earth.”

Orion’s odyssey began in mid-November with the first-ever launch of NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket, and traced a route that came as close as 80 miles to the lunar surface and ranged as far out as 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Orion traveled 1.4 million miles in all.

On the way back to Earth, cameras mounted on the spacecraft’s solar array wings sent back spectacular imagery of our planet looming larger in Orion’s metaphorical windshield. Once the spacecraft jettisoned its European-built service module, a set of thrusters built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., controlled the capsule’s orientation for atmospheric re-entry.

Mission managers said Orion’s descent ranked among the sternest tests of the mission. As the spacecraft hit the top part of the atmosphere at a velocity of nearly 25,000 mph, Orion’s heat shield had to weather temperatures around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After that trial by fire, parachutes slowed the descent further, allowing the spacecraft to hit the ocean at about 20 mph.

Navias said it was a “textbook entry.”

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GeekWire

Orion spacecraft takes its last close look at the moon

NASA’s Orion capsule fired its main engine for three and a half minutes today during a close approach to the moon, executing a maneuver that’s meant to put the spacecraft on course for a splashdown in six days.

Orion came within 80 miles to the lunar surface during what’s expected to be the final large maneuver of its 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission. Today’s maneuver had to succeed in order to bring the uncrewed spacecraft back to Earth intact. The only other firings on the schedule are aimed at making tweaks in the trajectory.

Artemis 1, which began with the first-ever liftoff of NASA’s giant Space Launch rocket on the night of Nov. 15, is a test flight designed to blaze a trail for future crewed missions to the moon. The SLS sent Orion on a looping course that took advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull and ranged as far as 40,000 miles beyond the moon.

Although there are no astronauts aboard Orion this time, the seats are filled by three mannequins that have been hooked up with sensors to monitor radiation exposure, temperature levels and other factors that might affect future fliers.

There’s also an experimental, Alexa-style AI assistant code-named Callisto, which was built for NASA by Amazon in collaboration with Cisco and Lockheed Martin. Ground controllers and VIPs, including “Hidden Figures” actress Taraji P. Henson, have been using Callisto to check in with the capsule during the mission.

Debbie Korth, NASA’s Orion deputy program manager, said Callisto’s users found the system to be “very interactive, very engaging in terms of being able to talk to the spacecraft, turn lights on and off, write notes, play music, ask questions.”

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GeekWire

Orion watches a weird Earth eclipse from farthest frontier

Halfway into its 25.5-day uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, NASA’s Orion capsule today recorded a weird kind of Earth-moon eclipse, reached its farthest distance from our planet and began the trek back home.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson marveled at the milestones achieved in the Artemis program, aimed at sending astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2025.

“Artemis 1 has had extraordinary success and has completed a series of history-making events,” he told reporters at a news briefing. “For example, on Friday, for the first time, a human-rated spacecraft successfully entered that orbit for Artemis, one called a distant retrograde orbit. And then, on Saturday, Orion surpassed the distance record for a mission with a spacecraft designed to carry humans into deep space. … And just over an hour ago, Orion set another record, clocking its maximum distance from Earth, 270,000 miles.”

The mission evokes the spirit of the Apollo program, which sent NASA astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago. To cite just one example, Artemis 1 broke the distance record set by Apollo 13 back in 1970. “Artemis builds on Apollo,” Nelson said. “Not only are we going farther and coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment, to invent, to create, and ultimately to go on with humans to Mars.”

Cameras mounted on Orion’s solar array wings have been recording images of Earth, the moon and the spacecraft itself since the capsule’s Nov. 15 launch atop NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket. Today, the orbital alignment was just right to capture pictures of the moon passing in front of Earth’s disk — which meant contact with Earth was temporarily cut off during the eclipse.

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GeekWire

Orion capsule sets a record with far-out lunar orbit

NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule successfully executed an engine burn to enter an unusual type of orbit around the moon on the 10th day of the weeks-long Artemis 1 mission, and it set a distance record on the 11th day.

During the Nov. 25 course correction, the orbital maneuvering system engine on Orion’s European-built service module fired for 88 seconds as the capsule traveled more than 57,000 miles above the lunar surface.

“It looks like we had a good burn,” NASA spokeswoman Chelsey Ballarte said from Mission Control in Houston.

The firing ensured that Orion will trace what’s known as a distant retrograde orbit, ranging out as far as 268,552 miles from Earth. Today, the capsule broke the 248,655-mile record for the farthest distance from Earth traveled by spacecraft designed to carry humans to space and bring them home safely. The previous record was set by Apollo 13 in 1970.

After making half of a long-distance orbit, Orion will fire its engine again to start setting itself up for the homeward trip, ending with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.

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GeekWire

Orion capsule gets great views as it buzzes the moon

NASA’s Orion capsule rounded the moon today, marking a crucial milestone in a weeks-long Artemis 1 mission that’s preparing the way for sending astronauts to the lunar surface.

As the uncrewed spacecraft maneuvered for its outbound powered flyby, it sent back a spectacular set of images that showed the moon looming larger in its metaphorical windshield, and a tiny blue Earth setting beneath the lunar horizon.

Artemis 1 flight director Judd Frieling said flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center felt “giddy” when they saw the pictures come down. “They’re just happy that all of the hard work and dedication that they’ve spent for years — many, many, many years — is really paying dividends,” he told reporters.

Mission manager Mike Sarafin said the flight was proceeding with “no concerns,” other than a few glitches with its power system and its star trackers.

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Universe Today

Artemis 1 snaps pictures of Earth as it heads for the moon

As it heads for the moon, NASA’s Orion space capsule is sending back snapshots of Earth that evoke the “blue marble” pictures taken by Apollo astronauts five decades earlier.

This time around, the photographer is basically a robot, built into the camera system for the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission. The round-the-moon odyssey got off to a spectacular start early today with the first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System, and over the next 25 days it’s due to blaze a trail for future crewed trips to the lunar surface.

Hours after liftoff, a camera mounted on one of Orion’s four solar arrays pivoted around to capture a view of the spacecraft’s European-built service module in the foreground — with our half-shadowed planet set against the black background of space.

“Orion looking back at Earth as it travels toward the moon, 57,000 miles away from the place we call home,” NASA’s Sandra Jones intoned as the imagery came down.

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GeekWire

NASA’s mega rocket lifts off to begin moon mission

NASA succeeded spectacularly in the third attempt to launch its Space Launch System rocket on an uncrewed round-the-moon mission that’s meant to blaze a trail for future Artemis lunar landings.

Artemis 1’s liftoff from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida came at 1:47 a.m. ET Nov. 16 (10:47 p.m. PT Nov. 15).

The 322-foot-tall, 5.5 million-pound SLS is the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA, surpassing the power of the Apollo era’s Saturn V rocket. The SLS evoked the legacy of Saturn V as it rose on a bright pillar of flame and disappeared into the night sky.

“You guys have worked hard as a team for this moment. This is your moment,” launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson told her teammates in the control room after liftoff. “You have earned your place in history. You are part of a first. It doesn’t come along very often — once in a career, maybe. But we are part of something very special: the first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the moon, and on to Mars.”

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Cosmic Space

Capstone probe settles into a strange lunar orbit

Four and a half months after it was launched, a nanosatellite called Capstone has begun circling the moon — in a peculiar type of orbit where no probe has gone before.

The complex path, known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit, is the same type of trajectory that NASA hopes to use for crewed missions to the moon starting in the mid-2020s. Capstone is an acronym, standing for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment.” But it’s also a metaphorical capstone for the Artemis moon program’s mission architecture.

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Cosmic Space

NASA rolls out its moon rocket for next launch attempt

NASA’s biggest rocket is on its Florida launch pad once more, awaiting liftoff on a milestone test mission around the moon.

The 322-foot-tall, 3.5-million-pound Space Launch System rocket rolled out overnight from the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, reaching Launch Complex 39B at around 8:30 a.m. ET (5:30 a.m. PT) today after a crawl that lasted nearly nine hours.

Launch teams will continue configuring the SLS rocket and its Orion capsule for the start of the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, now targeted for no earlier than 1:04 a.m. ET on Nov. 16 (10:04 p.m. PT Nov. 13). That time frame is dependent on being able to ride out the effects of Tropical Storm Nicole and getting everything in place after the storm.

NASA had planned to begin the weeks-long test mission in August — but a series of technical glitches, followed by the threat from Hurricane Ian, forced mission planners to bring the rocket back into the Vehicle Assembly Building. During the weeks that followed, engineers worked their way through a list of maintenance tasks that had been put off.