Here Is the Heart That Will Keep the Orion Spacecraft Alive

Orion rendering 11 photos
Photo: NASA/ESA/Airbus
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At the time of writing, there are exactly 70 days, 3 hours, 52 minutes, and 30 seconds left until the first mission of the Artemis Moon exploration program lifts off. It’s a dry run with no humans on board, a validation flight that should open the doors to crews once again landing on the Moon.
Artemis would not have been possible if it weren’t for two extreme and wonderful machines, the Space Launch System rocket (SLS), and the Orion capsule. The former is supposed to take Artemis off the ground and inject it into the required orbit, while the latter is supposed to take astronauts all the way to the Moon.

Each of these two major pieces of hardware of course comprises a number of other, less visible subsystems, but equally as important to the success of each mission. And one of these so-called subsystems is the European Service Module (ESM).

As most of you know, the last Moon exploration program, Apollo, was an entirely American affair, but this time globalization has pushed NASA into looking for help outside the borders of the country. In the case of the ESM, they tapped ESA and Airbus with devising it.

ESM is in fact Orion’s main power and propulsion source. It’s a 4-meter (13 feet) long cylindrical piece of unpressurized equipment that holds the capsule’s main engine, and tanks for fuel (oxygen, nitrogen) and water. The unit’s design is an evolution of an older ESA spacecraft called Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which years ago was used to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

Orion rendering
Photo: NASA/ESA/Airbus
The module weighs a total of 8,000 pounds (3,629 kg) and carries almost 19,000 pounds of propellant. In the grand scheme of things, it will be located below the crew module, attached to it by means of a couple of adaptors.

According to NASA, during the launch sequence the module fits inside a 5.2-meter (17 feet) diameter housing, but once free from Earth’s pull, it can reach a span of 19 meters (62 feet) through the deployment of a series of solar panels. They have 15,000 solar cells and can generate enough power to feed the needs of two three-bedroom homes - about 11 kW.

Much of the module is occupied by the Orbital Maneuvering System Engine (OMS-E), which extends into one of the said adapters. In fact a repurposed leftover engine devised for the now defunct space shuttle, the unit, in the revised configuration, can generate 6,000 pounds of thrust.

Much of that is used to give the Orion in-space maneuvering capability, but then some of the power generated is used to keep Orion’s instruments running. It also helps with keeping life support in the green, and the hardware is also responsible for maintaining the ambient temperature at tolerable levels while the Orion travels through the cold void of space. It is also the storage medium for water and air.

Orion rendering
Photo: NASA/ESA/Airbus
The OMS-E is far from being the only engine on this piece of hardware. A total of 33 power units are integrated into it, as follows: the main engine, eight Aerojet R4D-11 units good for 110 pounds of thrust each, and eight ATV-based power houses good for 50 pounds of thrust a pop.

As per the initial specs, the European Service Module should be capable of supporting four astronauts for about 21 days in space.

The ESM that will be flying on Artemis I is just the first in what is likely to be a long series. Airbus and ESA are already working on the second one, after in February this year NASA granted them a contract for three more.

Artemis I is scheduled to take off on February 12, 2022.

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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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