September 14, 2010
ARTEMIS – The First Earth-Moon Libration Orbiter
In August 1960, NASA launched its first communications satellite, Echo 1. Fifty years later, NASA has achieved another first by placing the ARTEMIS-P1 spacecraft into a unique orbit behind the moon, but not actually orbiting the moon itself. This type of orbit, called an Earth-Moon libration orbit, relies on a precise balancing of the Sun, Earth, and Moon gravity so that a spacecraft can orbit about a virtual location rather than about a planet or moon. The diagrams below show the full ARTEMIS-P1 orbit as it flies in proximity to the moon.
ARTEMIS-P1 is the first spacecraft to navigate to and perform stationkeeping operations around the Earth-Moon L1 and L2 Lagrangian points. There are five Lagrangian points associated with the Earth-Moon system. The two points nearest the moon are of great interest for lunar exploration. These points are called L1 (located between the Earth and Moon) and L2 (located on the far side of the Moon from Earth), each about 61,300 km (38,100 miles) above the lunar surface. It takes about 14 to 15 days to complete one revolution about either the L1 or L2 point. These distinctive kidney-shaped orbits are dynamically unstable and require weekly monitoring from ground personnel. Orbit corrections to maintain stability are regularly performed using onboard thrusters.
ARTEMIS stands for "Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon's Interaction with the Sun". The ARTEMIS mission uses two of the five in-orbit spacecraft from another NASA Heliophysics constellation of satellites (THEMIS) that were launched in 2007 and successfully completed their mission earlier this year. The ARTEMIS mission allowed NASA to repurpose two in-orbit spacecraft to extend their useful science mission, saving tens of millions of taxpayer dollars instead of building and launching new spacecraft. Other benefits of this first ever libration orbit mission include the investigation of lunar regions to provide a staging location for both assembly of telescopes or human exploration of planets and asteroids or even to serve as a communication relay location for a future lunar outpost. The navigation and control of the spacecraft will also provide NASA engineers with important information on propellant usage, requirements on ground station resources, and the sensitivity of controlling these unique orbits.
The ARTEMIS mission implementation and operation represents a joint effort between NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Calif., and the University of California, Berkeley, Space Sciences Laboratory.
David Folta / Mark Woodard / NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Image 1: Illustration of Artemis-P1 liberations orbits. Credit: NASA/Goddard
Image 2: Illustration of Artemis-P1 liberations orbits, side or ecliptic view. Credit: NASA/Goddard
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