Technicians have completed construction on the spacecraft capsule structure that will return astronauts to the Moon, and have successfully shipped the capsule to Florida for final assembly into a full spacecraft. The capsule structure, or pressure vessel, for NASA's Orion Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) spacecraft was welded together over the last seven months by Lockheed Martin technicians and engineers at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans.
Orion is the world's only exploration-class spaceship, and the EM-2 mission will be its first flight with astronauts on board, taking them farther into the solar system than ever before.
"It's great to see the EM-2 capsule arrive just as we are completing the final assembly of the EM-1 crew module," said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and program manager for Orion. "We've learned a lot building the previous pressure vessels and spacecraft and the EM-2 spacecraft will be the most capable, cost-effective and efficient one we've built."
Orion's pressure vessel is made from seven large, machined aluminum alloy pieces that are welded together to produce a strong, light-weight, air-tight capsule. It was designed specifically to withstand the harsh and demanding environment of deep space travel while keeping the crew safe and productive.
"We're all taking extra care with this build and assembly, knowing that this spaceship is going to take astronauts back to the Moon for the first time in four decades," said Matt Wallo, senior manager of Lockheed Martin Orion Production at Michoud. "It's amazing to think that, one day soon, the crew will watch the sun rise over the lunar horizon through the windows of this pressure vessel. We're all humbled and proud to be doing our part for the future of exploration."
The capsule was shipped over the road from New Orleans to the Kennedy Space Center, arriving on Friday, Aug. 24. Now in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building, Lockheed Martin technicians will immediately start assembly and integration on the EM-2 crew module.
The Canadian Space Operations Centre (CANSpOC) is the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Director General Space’s operational unit; it provides space domain awareness and surveillance to the Canadian Armed Forces as well as other governmental and commercial entities. The data it collects and analyzes is used to support domestic, deployed military and civil operations on a global scale.
The CANSpOC recently tracked the Chinese space station called Tiangong-1 (which translates as “Heavenly Palace”). The station, launched in 2011, was China’s first space station. It was home to Chinese astronauts on two occasions but had been unmanned since the summer of 2013. China lost control of the station in 2016 and its orbit began to slowly decay. It burned up on re-entry and broke apart on Sunday, April 1, 2018, over the southern Pacific Ocean.
Tiangong-1 orbited between 42.75°N and 42.75°S, meaning that it was certain the station would only re-enter between these latitudes. This constitutes about two-thirds of the Earth’s entire surface, half of which is covered by water. Canada covers an area from 41.65°S to 83.10°N latitudes. Consequently, the only region within Canada that could have been potentially at risk of falling space debris was the very southern tip of Ontario.
The station’s shape, size and material determined whether it would have completely burned up in the atmosphere or broken up into smaller pieces that could have survived re-entry. Tiangong-1’s considerable mass of approximatively 8,500 kilograms created concerns that pieces of debris might survive re-entry.
The CANSpOC collaborated with military counterparts from Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States to perform a series of predictions of Tiangong-1’s final re-entry point. Predicting the location where a space object will re-enter is a complex task due to the fluctuation of many variables such as the orientation of the object and atmospheric density. As the re-entry date approached, the uncertainty shrank and the predictions became more accurate. The CANSpOC provided warnings and updates to the appropriate entities in Government of Canada such as Public Safety until the space station broke up while entering earth’s atmosphere.