Science 4 min read

NASA Finalizes Plans for First Deep Space Exploration Mission

Vadim Sadovski |

Vadim Sadovski |

NASA reviewed its launch schedule for the first SLS and Orion flight. It will be uncrewed, feature a number of 3D printed parts, and is scheduled for the end of 2019.

Relax, Mars fans!

NASA hasn’t given up on the Red Planet (even though we told you they had in this article).

It’s true that the space agency said it won’t likely have the budget necessary to make the “2030 journey”, but made it clear it would carry on with research and development of tech that would make the trip possible.

NASA's first *crewed* mission to Mars scheduled for 2023. Click To Tweet

Nothing illustrates that intent more than the ongoing investment, research, and development into the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, two of the most advanced space hardware ever made.

Traveling to Mars

On the road toward Mars, NASA is thinking about how to tackle issues of survival during space travel and sustaining colonists once on the surface.

There are many more strategic decisions to make, such as the design of the vessel itself, the best trajectory to Mars, and how to best handle the duration of the trip.

By the way, if you want to see how Elon Musk addressed those questions, read this.

Depending on the position in their respective orbits, the distance between Earth and Mars varies greatly.

The closest the two planets can be is about 55 million kilometers, allowing for the shortest, and least-costly trip (which spans about 9 months). This occurs when Earth is at its aphelion (farthest point from the Sun), and Mars is at its perihelion (closest point).

That means that there’s only once launch window every 26 months, and here the type of spacefaring technology also comes into play.

Rockets taking off from Earth carrying small payloads (satellites, probes, etc.) have become almost routine. However, to get to Mars, we need much more powerful propulsion.

While private companies are developing their own launchers, NASA has chosen to build a heavy launcher, the Space Launch System (SLS), which, along with the Orion capsule, should allow the agency to prep for phases of deep space exploration.

By the way, we’d like to mention that NASA 3D printed quite a few of the parts for the Orion spacecraft. They also used also welded the thickest structures ever using self-reacting friction stir welding. The video above will give you a loose idea of how stir welding works.

Exploration Mission-1: NASA’s First Tangible Step Toward Mars

Now, NASA has provided an interesting update after completing a comprehensive review of the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 that will test SLS and Orion.

Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is critical for NASA since it will be the first mission to test the capabilities of the SLS and the Orion spacecraft.

At first, NASA considered a crewed EM-1 to save overall time in the progress of the program. Yet, because of the many extraneous costs and technical challenges that come with a crewed mission, the agency decided to make the first flight uncrewed.

NASA first proposed an aggressive launch schedule, which has been postponed ever since. The first SLS flight was planned for the end of 2018. Now, the test flight is scheduled for December 2019, but it could be delayed again to June 2020.

NASA initiated this review to assess challenges that compromise the launch schedule: manufacturing and supply issues with SLS core stage, constructing the Orion service module, and even tornado damage at one of its assembly facilities, the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana.

However, the agency said that “the majority of work on NASA’s new deep space exploration systems is on track”, and that it would put in place a risk-mitigation strategy, but did not provide further details.

“While the review of the possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing [for] December 2019,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “Since several of the key risks identified have not been actually realized, we are able to put in place mitigation strategies for those risks to protect the December 2019 date.”

The next mission, EM-2, which will have astronauts aboard the Orion capsule, is tentatively scheduled for 2023.

Things are moving along. When do you think we’ll see a human-crewed spacecraft travel to Mars?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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