By the year 2024, NASA plans on sending humans back to the moon. But before it does that, the space agency will run a test flight, with no humans yet, to make sure its newly designed spacecraft Orion is up for the big mission.
The test flight, named Artemis I, will launch the Orion spacecraft into Earth orbit, more than 3,600 miles above our planet, before it plummets back and reenters Earth's atmosphere. As it reenters, the spacecraft will slow down and splash-land in the Pacific Ocean.
A team of engineers will then set off to find the spacecraft, and they will do so with the help of Sasquatch.
However, this Sasquatch is not the hairy, mythical creature that stalks the forest. It's rather a software designed to locate and recover Orion after it reenters Earth's atmosphere.
Scheduled to take off in April, 2021, Artemis I kicks off humanity's return to the Moon. The uncrewed test flight will launch the Orion spacecraft aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket, packed with sensors to record and measure all aspects of the flight.
Once it reaches Earth's surface, Orion will separate from the rocket before it orbits around the Earth. The spacecraft will then reach over 3,600 miles above Earth and pass through the Van Allen Belts, a zone of intense radiation.
After it survives the test of its protective shielding, Orion will prepare to re-enter Earth's atmosphere, traveling at 20,000 miles per hour.
The journey back into Earth's atmosphere is the most intense part of the mission, as the spacecraft essentially turns into a burning fireball with temperatures around it reaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. But as soon as it makes it safely into the planet's atmosphere, Orion will slow down to about 300 miles per hour. Parachutes will then be deployed, slowing the spacecraft down further to about 20 miles per hour as it prepares to land in the Pacific Ocean.
A recovery ship will be waiting nearby, with a four-person team of NASA engineers, and its Sasquatch.
“Sasquatch is the software NASA uses to predict large footprints — that’s why we call it Sasquatch — of the various debris that is released from the capsule as it is reentering and coming through descent,” Sarah Manning, a Sasquatch operator and aerospace engineer from the Engineering Directorate at Johnson, said in a statement.
The software uses wind data gathered by eight weather balloons, with data about the debris, such as how quickly it falls, in order to predict where the debris will fall. That information will then be used to direct the recovery ship as close as possible to the location of the Orion debris, and help the team recover as much hardware as possible before it sinks into the ocean.
“We have locations ready two hours before splashdown, but anything could change,” Manning said. “Then we have to make real-time decisions and people need to move.”
The recovery team has to be close enough to be able to make a move towards the hardware quickly, but not too close where they are at risk of getting injured by the falling debris.
It is important to examine the hardware recovered by Sasquatch so that the Artemis team can collect further information about its performance during the test flight.
Should Artemis I be a success, then NASA will be ready to deploy Artemis II by no later than the year 2023.
Artemis II is designed to carry humans onboard the Orion spacecraft, although they will not land on the Moon, either. Instead, the spacecraft is designed to orbit the Moon and return back to Earth.
If NASA passes these two tests of engineering ingenuity, then it will be time for the main event. Artemis III is currently scheduled for the year 2024, landing humans on the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years.
And unlike the Apollo missions, this time when humans land on the Moon, they plan to stay a while. Ultimately the Artemis program wants to set up a sustainable presence of astronauts on the Moon, sending a crew up to the lunar surface every year.