During Artemis I, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will send the agency’s Orion spacecraft on a trek 40,000 miles beyond the Moon before returning to Earth. To capture the journey, the rocket and spacecraft are equipped with cameras that will collect valuable engineering data and share a unique perspective of humanity’s return to the Moon.
There are 24 cameras on the rocket and spacecraft – eight on SLS and 16 on Orion – to document essential mission events including liftoff, ascent, solar array deployment, external rocket inspections, landing and recovery, and capture images of Earth and the Moon.
On the rocket, four cameras around the engine section point up toward Orion, two cameras at the intertank by the top of boosters will capture booster separation, and two cameras on the launch vehicle stage adapter will capture core stage separation. The eight cameras will cycle through a preprogrammed sequence during launch and ascent.
On Orion, an external camera mounted on the crew module adapter will show the SLS rocket’s ascent, providing the “rocket cam” view the public often sees during launches. Another camera will provide a view of service module panel jettison and solar array wing deployment. Four cameras attached to the spacecraft’s solar array wings on the service module will help engineers assess the overall health of the outside of Orion and can capture a selfie view of the spacecraft with the Earth or Moon in the background.
“Each of Orion’s four solar array wings has a commercial off-the-shelf camera mounted at the tip that has been highly modified for use in space, providing a view of the spacecraft exterior,” said David Melendrez, imagery integration lead for the Orion Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The arrays can adjust their position relative to the rest of the spacecraft, which will optimize the collection of sunlight converted into electricity to power Orion. This also allows flight controllers in the Mission Control Center at NASA Johnson to point the cameras at different parts of the spacecraft for inspections and to document its surroundings, including the Earth and Moon.
A specialized camera on the crew module adapter used for optical navigation and to help pinpoint Orion’s location in deep space will be used to collect imagery of the Moon during Orion’s closest approach to the lunar surface. Also affixed to the crew module adapter but pointed inward, another camera is positioned to capture imagery of Orion’s heat shield after the crew module separates from the service module before its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Inside the spacecraft, three more wireless cameras can capture the perspectives astronauts will have on future Artemis missions, with one camera looking out the front pilot window and a second looking over the shoulder of the commander seat, where the instrument panel will be located on future missions. A third in-cabin camera will look out the top hatch window to provide views of launch abort system jettison during ascent as well as parachute deployment during landing and recovery.
There are also two external high-speed cameras dedicated to monitoring parachute operations, which technicians will download and process after the flight.
The images and video collected by the Orion cameras will come in a variety of formats, ranging from standard-definition to high-definition and up to 4K. Each is tailored for a specific use and dependent on the bandwidth available during the mission to send to Earth or recorded on board to be analyzed after the mission ends. Due to bandwidth limitations on the spacecraft that prioritize transmitting critical data to the ground, livestream video quality will be lower than the onboard recordings. As a result, some of the highest quality views may not be received until well after they are recorded and can be downlinked.
The field of view of each camera has been optimized to look at the spacecraft, not deep space, and imagery for the Artemis I flight will depend on a variety of factors such as lighting, spacecraft orientation, and communication capabilities during different mission phases.
“A lot of folks have an impression of Earthrise based on the classic Apollo 8 shot,” Melendrez said. “Images captured during the mission will be different than what humanity saw during Apollo missions, but capturing milestone events such as Earthrise, Orion’s farthest distance from Earth, and lunar flyby will be a high priority.”
Orion also will carry cameras that are part of a technology demonstration, called Callisto. The Callisto payload includes three in-cabin cameras that will be used to test video conferencing capabilities and may enhance the public’s ability to imagine themselves inside Orion.
Through Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon, paving the way for a long-term lunar presence, and serving as a steppingstone to send astronauts to Mars.