The Orion spaceship, NASA’s next-generation vehicle developed to ferry astronauts to the moon and beyond, just hit a key milestone.
According to Reuters, the Orion will soon be fitted with its first service module — a European “powerhouse” which has just been delivered earlier today by NASA’s transatlantic partners.
Dubbed the European Service Module (ESM), this crucial component was built by Airbus and will serve to “power and propel the Orion spacecraft on its first mission around the moon,” the European Space Agency (ESA) said on Tuesday.
The hardware was officially handed over to U.S. officials at Bremen airport in Germany on Friday, notes the BBC. Here, the ESM will be loaded inside an Antonov An-124 aircraft and will fly to Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 5. The service module is expected to arrive in the U.S. on the following day.
“Designed and manufactured in Italy and Germany, the powerful workhorse is Europe’s contribution to humanity’s return to the moon,” stated ESA officials.
The module essentially makes up the back end of the Orion spacecraft and includes a main engine and 32 smaller thrusters that will enable the capsule to orient itself in space. At the same time, the ESM is equipped with large tanks to hold fuel, water, and oxygen for the astronauts.
In addition, the European “powerhouse” will also provide thermal control for the Orion, so that the crew can ride at a comfortable temperature during their upcoming missions to the moon and to Mars.
As NASA points out, the ESM “is a unique collaboration across space agencies” and a major step toward “extending the international cooperation of the International Space Station into deep space.”
This is the first time that the U.S. space agency uses a European-built system as a critical element to power an American spacecraft.
“This is the system that will enable humans to move sustainably into deep space […] and leave the Earth-moon system for the first time ever,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.
Once in Florida, the ESM will be connected to the Orion crew module and together will undergo more than a year’s worth of intensive testing ahead of the spacecraft’s maiden voyage in 2020.
Known as Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1, this first spaceflight will take the Orion on a three-week journey around the moon and prepare the spacecraft for its first manned mission — EM-2, slated to launch in 2022.
One notable thing about the Orion crew module, which was built by Lockheed Martin, is that it is the first deep-space craft to incorporate 3D-printed components, as previously reported by the Inquisitr.
By the time the first astronauts climb aboard the Orion, the spacecraft will have already traveled nearly 40,000 miles beyond the moon during EM-1. That’s farther into space than any human-rated spacecraft has ever ventured, notes ESA.
The mission is designed to demonstrate system capabilities and prove that the capsule can sustain the crew during its first manned launch. Since the spacecraft will discard the ESM before returning to Earth, the Orion will use another module for EM-2.
Airbus is already working on this second ESM and has even begun preparations for a third space trip of the Orion capsule. Following the EM-2, NASA and ESA are planning on launching the spacecraft on a yearly basis — “making the Orion project both politically and economically important at a time when China and other countries are racing to gain a foothold in space,” per Reuters.