'The eyes' of NASA's Orion spacecraft will provide navigation, beautiful views of Earth and the moon
Orion will become the first human-rated spacecraft that can navigate itself to the moon and back, taking "selfies" with Earth and the moon along its journey.
A high-tech system of cameras will act as the eyes and ears of NASA's moon spacecraft on its test flight, known as Artemis 1. While no humans will be onboard, 11 cameras outside and inside Orion will gather data for every time of the spacecraft's 42-journey orbiting the moon and back.
NASA is targeting Aug. 29 during a 2-hour window opening at 8:33 a.m. ET for the Space Launch System rocket to liftoff with Orion from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39B.
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Deep Space Systems, a Redwire company in Colorado, worked with Orion manufacturer Lockheed Martin to add cameras to the spacecraft that will provide high-definition, 4K video.
Redwire Space Chief Engineer and Deep Space Systems founder Steve Bailey has been working on different aspects of the Orion design since 2005. He's worked on seven Mars missions and is the recipient of NASA's Snoopy Award, a high honor for contributing to flight safety and mission success.
"As we developed the spacecraft design, we knew that we wanted a high-performance camera system, and we knew there are lots of critical events and there's lots of need for situational awareness, and there's lots of need to simply bring the mission home to the nation that is funding it," Bailey explained. "To be the eyes of the program."
The cameras also will hear vibrations from the spacecraft, including the "clicks, booms and bangs" of structural sounds through spaceflight, according to Bailey.
Cameras are mounted to the Orion crew module, the European service module and one on each of the spacecraft's solar arrays. The mobility of those cameras allows Orion's team to inspect the vehicle from the docking hatch to the main engine from every side.
"Those solar arrays you could think of as big selfie sticks. It's like an x-wing kind of configuration, and each of the solar arrays can rotate completely around on a slip ring, and they can bend forward and backward," Bailey said.
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Redwire's camera system will also help provide live views of the journey to the moon and back. There is also the opportunity for stop-motion photography.
"We'll be able to see the entire journey from the Earth to the moon sped up," Bailey said. "But the real-time parts of it … having video, especially if we can get live video of lunar orbit insertion …. and just orbiting the moon and see and seeing the spaceship with the moon in the background, there's going to be some tremendous photo opportunities here."
Navigating ‘all by itself’
Four other cameras are on Orion's European service module, including the optical navigation camera.
"It is taking pictures of the Earth and the moon, as we fly away from the Earth and get close to the moon and are out in the middle … by taking pictures of the Earth and the moon, we can triangulate and compute on board position and velocity, and that's a brand new thing as far as a human exploration mission goes," Bailey said.
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Optical navigation technology has been used previously by NASA on robotic missions, but it will be the first for a spacecraft intended to fly humans as soon as next year on the Artemis 2 mission around the moon.
"It's a technique that's been used in spaceflight since Voyager, really," Bailey said of NASA's 1977 twin spacecraft. "You're taking pictures, and by looking around and seeing stars and planets and the sun, you're able to determine position."
A future crew's survival could depend on the navigation system if communication and backup systems fail.
"The spacecraft, with this optical navigation camera, can actually fly itself to the moon, get into orbit, do laps and fly back and do a precision landing in the Pacific Ocean all by itself," Bailey said.
Orion's mission will culminate with a splashdown off the coast of California after a 42-day test flight.