Colors, Impacts, and Volcanoes: Big Science from a Brief Lunar Flyby (Part 1)

NASA astronauts and flight controllers, including Artemis 2 crewmembers Jeremy Hansen (foreground), Christina Koch (second from left), and Victor Glover (third from left) learn about the Moon during the Lunar Fundamentals course. Credit: NASA/Cynthia Evans.

Next September, Artemis 2 astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and Jeremy Hansen will spend a grand total of less than an hour in the vicinity of the Moon.  This might sound like a relatively brief duration, but for a well-trained astronaut, it is ample time to observe the Moon, draw inferences, and take photographs.  The mission’s science team plans to make the most of every single moment in the lunar flyby.  A small team of planetary geologists began developing science objectives for Artemis 2 last spring.  Since then, they have defined a unique niche which the mission can fill, allowing it to complement active robotic orbiters and future Artemis missions to the lunar south pole.  

The Artemis 2 research plan is formally known as the Earth Moon Observation Imaging Campaign; it has also been referred to as the Crew Lunar Observations (CLO) program.  It is led by Kelsey Young, a planetary scientist at the Goddard Spaceflight Center and one of the world’s leading experts on building scientific investigations into real-time mission operations.  Her deputy is Noah Petro, who is also the Project Scientist for the subsequent Artemis 3 lunar landing.  They are supported by the other eight members of the Artemis Internal Science Team, a group of NASA scientists who specialize in various research fields which Artemis will need to focus on. 

Using his trusty Ansco Autoset, John Glenn gave us our first look at a sunset as seen from space. Credit: NASA/John Glenn.

The Artemis 2 imaging campaign builds on a long legacy of using astronaut photography for science.  Shortly before he became the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn bought a 40-dollar Ansco Autoset camera from a drugstore in Cocoa Beach to capture the first handheld photographs of Earth from space.  More recently, astronauts on the International Space Station have spent the past 23 years building a continuous record of exquisite color images of their home planet.  The 3.5 million Crew Earth Observations (CEO) photographs include many images which were captured at times of day and angles which autonomous satellites cannot replicate [1].  On the CEO program’s website, Earth scientists and student groups can follow a simple process to request new photographs from the space station.  The CLO plan is modelled after the success of CEO, although some key differences are introduced by Artemis 2’s unique destination.  For instance, most ISS images concentrate on biology and human activity, whereas the Artemis photographs will focus on geology.

Kelsey Young (left) and Noah Petro (right) are the lead and deputy lead for Artemis 2’s Earth Moon Observation Imaging Campaign. Credit: NASA/Rob Andreoli (photo of Young) and NASA/Joel Kowsky (photo of Petro).

Last fall, AmericaSpace published a story on the first phase of the science definition process based on a public presentation by Young and Petro.  Since then, members of the science team have delivered two presentations which included additional details on their objectives for the mission.  The first public update was provided at the Artemis Orbital Observation Science workshop.  The goal of this public meeting was to brainstorm science objectives which could be addressed during Artemis 2 and future missions to the Gateway in lunar orbit.  Petro delivered a presentation on the four primary objectives which Artemis 2 will attempt to address [2].  Additional ideas were solicited from independent lunar scientists and built into a 15-page report, which was released last month [3].  Petro gave a second address at an annual Artemis science briefing last month, where he shared the mission’s official science objectives for the first time and described how Artemis 2 will fit into NASA’s broader plans for lunar exploration [4].

Astronauts train for an Artemis Moonwalk inside NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL). The floodlights are used to simulate the extreme lighting conditions at the lunar south pole. Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace.

The science team appears to be enthusiastic about the specific objectives which their mission will attempt to accomplish.  However, one of their greatest legacies will be laying the groundwork for future missions to the lunar surface.  Prior human spaceflight programs – particularly the Space Shuttle and the ISS – initially struggled to find a scientific niche because their requirements and designs were not driven by a specific set of scientific objectives.  Both programs ultimately went on to make revolutionary discoveries, but with Artemis, NASA would like to incorporate research into the program from its inception.  Artemis 2 sets that precedent.

Lunar scientists discuss the JETT 5 field test inside the new Artemis Science Evaluation Room (SER). Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz.

During Artemis 2, NASA will demonstrate several fundamental processes.  The mission will be the first to incorporate the new Science Evaluation Room (SER), which will be staffed around the clock by planetary geologists while Orion is in flight.  The SER is located inside Houston’s famous Mission Control Center; during the Apollo era, it housed some of the building’s mainframe computers.  Its renovations were completed just in time to support the recent Joint EVA Test Team (JETT) 5 exercise in Arizona, which was a rehearsal for Artemis 3’s Moonwalks.  

A team of engineers monitors the flight of Artemis 1 from the historic White Flight Control Room (WFCR) in Houston, Texas. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz.

To support Artemis 2, the geologists in the SER will demonstrate creating an observation plan, uploading it to the astronauts in Orion, and archiving the crew’s photographs for the world to study and enjoy.  The science team and the main flight control team will also practice exchanging information and recommendations while coping with the mission’s strict timeline.  While planetary geologists and aerospace engineers often have a shared interest in each other’s work, they speak different technical language.  Effective communications within a mission team therefore can require practice and effort.  Since all of these procedures will be introduced during Artemis 2, NASA will be able to learn from any difficulties which arise and streamline the process before astronauts ever set foot on the lunar surface.

As Young, Petro, and their team continue to develop the Artemis 2 observation campaign, they are simultaneously teaching the crew about the questions which they will investigate at the Moon.  Artemis geology training is led by the Johnson Space Center’s Cynthia Evans.  Last year, Evans and her team gave the crew a week-long briefing on planetary science, dubbed “Lunar Fundamentals.”  The development of the course was encouraged by Wiseman himself while he was still the Chief of the Astronaut Office.  Last May, Evans recalled, “Reid Wiseman said, ‘I want to be able to walk down the hallway and talk to anyone in the crew office about the Moon.  We need to know about the Moon’” [5].

Christina Koch admires the view from a mesa during her Artemis 2 crew’s excursion to Kamestastin Crater. Credit: NASA/Cynthia Evans.

Koch and Hansen continued their education last September with a trip to Kamestastin Crater in Canada.  The excursion was led by Gordon Osinski, an expert in astronaut training at the University of Western Ontario.  The 17-mile-wide (28-kilometer) Kamestastin impact structure is unique because it was produced when an asteroid struck a region rich in a rock called anorthosite.  Anorthosite is rare on Earth, but it is the primary ingredient of the Moon’s primordial crust.  Much of this material is preserved on the far side of the Moon, which Koch, Hansen and their crewmates will observe during their flyby; anorthosite is also abundant at all 13 candidate landing sites for Artemis 3.  This summer, the crew will take a second excursion to the lava flows of Iceland, which are similar to the Moon’s igneous rocks.  

The foursome also occasionally assists the science team from their home base at the Johnson Space Center. In particular, Wiseman, Glover, Koch, and Hansen are using the Orion Acoustics Laboratory, a unique simulator which can mimic the sounds inside the spacecraft, to verify that their recorded observations of the Moon are audible.

Artemis 2 Mission Specialist Jeremy Hansen studies a map of the Moon as part of his Lunar Fundamentals training. Credit: NASA/Cynthia Evans.

When he described his team’s mission statement, Petro stated, “This is not just about getting pretty pictures and getting on the cover of Time Magazine (or whatever magazines exist right now).  This is about leveraging the depth of information that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has provided and finding places where we can add value” [4].  To accomplish their objectives, Wiseman, Glover, Koch, and Hansen will collect a mix of photographs and oral observations.  They will have two state-of-the-art Nikon Z9 mirrorless cameras at their disposal.  One will be fitted with a short 14-24mm lens, which they will use to capture images of the full disk of the Moon and their daily routine inside the Orion capsule.  The second camera will have an 80-400mm telephoto lens, which they will use to zoom in on individual lunar features.  At the climax of the lunar flyby, the more powerful of the two cameras will have a resolution of 100 meters per pixel.  

The two astronauts who are not handling the cameras will use headsets connected to tablets to record verbal notes as they gaze at the Moon.  The Artemis science team would like to compare and contrast these observations to learn how the colors and textures of various lunar regions differ from the unique perspectives of individual human explorers.

This composite image depicts a simulated view of Earthrise from the perspective of the Artemis 2 crew. Credits: NASA (ISS Cupola window) and NASA/Noah Petro (rendering of the Earth and Moon).

At their closest approach, the crew will be 4,600 miles (7,500 km) from the Moon.  Compared to Apollo 13, the only other crewed lunar flyby, Orion will have a relatively leisurely velocity as it nears its destination.  Because it will need a smaller gravity assist to bend its trajectory back towards the Earth, it will follow a more distant trajectory to reduce the influence of the Moon’s gravitational field on its velocity.  This unique perspective will permit Wiseman, Glover, Koch, and Hansen to capture our first high-resolution images of the entire disk of the lunar far side.  

While their images will not be as detailed as the 1-meter-per-pixel photographs from LRO, they will be able to capture the Moon’s largest features, such as gaping impact basins and extensive flood basalt deposits, at a single moment in time.  “Every oblique image that LRO takes requires not only planning, but is specifically carried out for single objectives,” said Petro [2].  “A crewmember on a low flyby over the Moon can take multiple oblique images without having concern for thermal violations or power violations.”  By looking at ‘the forest instead of the trees,’ Artemis 2 will complement NASA’s other lunar missions.

The second part of this story, covering the specific science objectives of the Artemis 2 mission, will be published next Thursday (June 27th).

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