European tech on SLS moon rocket launch

European tech on SLS moon rocket launch

Feature articles |
By Nick Flaherty

The US is aiming to return to the Moon with the successful launch of its long delayed Artemis 1 rocket early this morning.

The Artemis programme  uses technology from the Space Shuttle programme, but also has key technology from Europe developed with digital twins and hardware in the loop (HIL) testing. The launch of the Orion module using the SLS rocket had been delayed by development problems, leaks and a recent tropical storm.

Twenty European companies have worked on components and testing of the European Service Module (ESM) developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide the power and control for the Orion crew module. It also provides the water, oxygen, nitrogen and temperature control for the module, which for Artemis 1 is uncrewed. Two mannequins in the module have an array of sensors to test out the operation as it orbits the moon and returns to Earth.


Celestia Antwerp is supplying some of the Electrical Ground Support Equipment (also known as EGSE) for the development and testing of the European Service Modules. This is used for the assembly, integration and verification at all sites where the European Service Module avionics components are tested.

These are the Airbus integration hall in Bremen, Germany, Airbus in Les Mureaux, France, and at Lockhead Martin’s Integration Test Laboratory in Denver in Colorado. It also supplies controllers to test the Power Control Distribution Units built by Leonardo in Milan, Italy, the Thermal Control Units built by Airbus Crisa in Spain, and the Solar Array Drive Electronics built by Beyond Gravity in Switzerland.

Thales Alenia Space Belgium are building and delivering Pressure Regulator Units (PRU) for the European Service Modules. These small units are vital for the propulsion system and placed all along the complex array of fuel lines that use helium to push propellant to the engines. The regulator units ensure that the fuel reaches the engines at the right time in the right amount and provides a check to the spacecraft operators that everything is happening as it should.

At the Airbus’ site in Les Mureaux, engineers specialize in the software side of the European Service Modules. The avionics handle thousands of inputs during spaceflight ranging from temperatures, position in space, fuel levels, direction of travel, kinetic forces, sunlight and more. The avionics takes all these inputs as well as commands from ground or the astronauts in the Crew Module and translates them into warnings, executes commands and reports back.

The avionics for the European Service Module required extensive testing and then further testing with the Crew Module to ensure the two parts of the spacecraft communicate properly. To do this, Airbus in Les Mureaux built a Orion spacecraft in software and key stand-in components where all aspects of a spaceflight mission are simulated.

The functional simulator includes replica models of the service module’s electronic units, and hardware such as valves, sensors, motors, batteries and power generation that can be programmed to reproduce any condition encountered during the missions in space.

Another part of the launcher, the  Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) also carries several tiny satellites for experiments after liftoff, including one from Italy.

The Orion Stage Adaptor (OSA) can potentially accommodate up to 17 CubeSats in a combination of 6U and 12U sizes (one unit, or U, is 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm). The actual number of CubeSats on a flight depends on several factors, including mission parameters and the combined weight of these small spacecraft, but the design includes a secondary payload deployment system for CubeSats, including mounting brackets for commercial off the-shelf dispensers, cable harnesses, a vibration isolation system, and an avionics unit.

The ArgoMoon CubeSat on the launch was developed by ArgoTec in Italy to observe the interim cryogenic propulsion stage with advanced optics and software imaging system.

The four Orion solar arrays, supplied by Swiss developer Beyond Gravity, are located on the ESM and generate about 11 kilowatts of power and spread 62 feet when extended.

Orion’s four main batteries are located on the crew module and use small cell packaging technology to ensure crew safety while providing 120 volts of power to onboard systems. The batteries are fully charged before launch to operate the spacecraft until the solar arrays can be deployed once in orbit. The batteries also operate the spacecraft when the solar arrays cannot be pointed at the Sun or in the shadow of the Earth or the Moon. The solar arrays are jettisoned right before entering the Earth’s atmosphere, so the batteries also provide all the power needed to keep the astronauts safe for return to Earth and up to 24 hours after splashdown. Power is transferred between the solar arrays and batteries and to the end item loads via the power and data units

Modern features have also been incorporated into Orion, including composite materials, 3D printed parts, solar arrays, and an improved heat shield design. Orion also has over 1,200 sensors, and the crew module has a glass cockpit with screens and user-interfaces. This includes an AI voice interface using chips from Synaptics.

As the spacecraft makes an orbit of Earth, it will deploy its solar arrays and the ICPS will give Orion the big push it needs to leave Earth’s orbit and travel toward the Moon. From there, Orion will separate from the ICPS approximately two hours after launch.

The ICPS will then deploy several small satellites, known as CubeSats, to perform several experiments and technology demonstrations that will improve our knowledge of the deep space environment.

The ESM service module then takes the Orion module to the Moon.

To communicate with mission control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Orion will switch from NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites system and connect through the Deep Space Network.

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