Meet the Orion Service Module, the brain of the Orion capsule built in Europe

A precious cargo has arrived from Europe at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week: the Europe-built service module that, in 2023, will power the first human mission to the moon since the Apollo era.

But what exactly is the European Service Module (ESM) and why did NASA entrust engineers from the old continent to build the critical component for the historic mission?

In fact, this is already the second Orion service module developed by European industry. The one currently docked with the crew capsule that will fly empty to the moon and return later this year or early 2022 was also built by a consortium led by European aerospace giant Airbus.

Gathered in the northern German city of Bremen, that first European service module (or ESM-1) is named after its hometown, Catherine Koerner, NASA’s Orion program manager, said during a press conference for Airbus on Wednesday (October 6).

The construction of the service module, which will take care of the propulsion, power and thermal control of the empty Orion capsule (and later also life support for flights with astronauts) has been a big problem for Europeans. The last time humans went to the moon, they stayed out. Now, they are not only providing a piece of mission-critical technology, but they have also won three seats for European astronauts on planned Artemis missions.

So far, six Orion service modules are being built under a contract between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus, and another batch of three is under negotiation. Despite delays related to the COVID 19 pandemic, Airbus managed to deliver the ESM-2 on time and is on track to produce one service module per year, ESA said in a statement.

ATV’s legacy

In designing the 14-foot (4-meter) wide and 14-foot high cylindrical service module, Airbus engineers drew on their experience with the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the self-contained expendable cargo ship that carried supplies. to the International Space Station between 2008 and 2014. The Airbus-led consortium had built five all-terrain vehicles, each the size of a double-decker bus, in that period, each of which could carry up to 14,330 pounds. (6,500 kilograms) of cargo to the orbital outpost. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship, the ATVs were burned upon entering Earth’s atmosphere filled with junk and unnecessary items from the space station.

The self-docking all-terrain vehicles were Airbus’ stepping stone to NASA’s Artemis flagship program, which promises to usher in a new era of space exploration.

“The development of the Orion service module started 10 years ago,” said Didier Radola, project manager of the Orion service module at Airbus during the briefing. “We now have a great solid program, which is running at full throttle. The first service module is now integrated with the Orion vehicle for the first Artemis mission. The second service module is ready for shipment to Kennedy, the third is on. integration process. “

The Orion spacecraft for NASA’s unmanned Artemis I mission. (Image credit: NASA)

Space Shuttle Engines

Like the ATV, the Orion service module is equipped with four 23-foot (7 m) solar wings arranged in an X-shape. Each of these wings consists of three panels that provide enough electricity to power two three-bedroom homes. , according to NASA.

The service module inherited its main engine from the space shuttle. Built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the AJ10 engine rotates from side to side to control the direction of flight. The ESM-2 is a reconditioned engine from the space shuttle Atlantis, the fourth of five shuttles built by NASA and the last to fly into space. In the future, it will be necessary to find a new engine for the Orion service module, as the supply of space shuttle engines will be depleted with the ESM-6, Airbus representatives said at the briefing.

The module also features eight R-4D-11 engines, descendants of the Apollo era, and six four-engine modules with a reaction control system custom designed by Airbus that will handle maneuvering and position control.

For its first 25-day trip to the Moon, the spacecraft will carry 8.6 tons of fuel, enough to demonstrate its capabilities by flying more than 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) past Earth’s natural satellite, Airbus said in a statement.

The Orion spacecraft will take humans to the moon for the first time since the 1970s. (Image credit: Lockheed Martin)

Many moving parts

The 13-ton service module consists of more than 20,000 components, including motors, electrical equipment, solar panels, fuel tanks, and life-support parts. All of that is tied together with several kilometers of cables and pipes.

After completing its transatlantic voyage, the ESM-2 will dock with the Orion crew module and undergo two years of testing prior to the groundbreaking crewed launch of the Artemis 2 mission, which is currently scheduled for September 2023.

During the manned mission, the service module will transport water and oxygen and manage the technology maintaining a breathable atmosphere and a comfortable temperature for the four pioneer astronauts.

The future Orion spacecraft will dock with the new space station to be built in orbit around the moon, Lunar Gateway.

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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