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Aiming for the moon with NASA’s Artemis I

Orion is pictured outside the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a November evening.

Orion, with its safe, tried-and-true design, passes the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on November 11, 2014. Image via Tampa Bay Times.

Artemis I will be the first in a series of new NASA missions that have the potential of becoming as historic as the Apollo missions. Indeed, the moon-goddess Artemis in the Greek mythology was the sister of Apollo, and the Artemis missions aim to bring the first woman and the next man to the moon in 2024 and eventually onward to the planet Mars.

This first mission will serve as the uncrewed test flight in preparation for the following Artemis missions, of which Artemis II will have a crew and Artemis III will land on the south pole of the moon.

Artemis I is currently scheduled to launch in November 2021 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. It consists of  two of NASA’s latest deep space systems: Orion, the module designed to carry the crew, and Space Launch System, the world’s most powerful rocket built to-date. This will be a demonstration of NASA’s capabilities to enable human exploration to the moon, Mars and beyond, in a process claimed to go farther and be faster and more technologically advanced than ever before.

Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager at NASA Headquarters, said:

This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known. It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.

The crew module Orion and the Space Launch System (abbreviated SLS) rocket are expected to launch from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39B. The SLS  — a rocket more powerful than the Saturn V that propelled the first astronauts to the moon — will produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust (39 million Newton) with its five boosters and four engines during liftoff to bring six million pounds (2.7 million kg) of vehicle into orbit. After releasing the boosters, the engines will shut down and the core stage (main body) of the rocket will separate from the spacecraft.

Following that are a series of technical propulsion stages that will give Orion the brawn needed to leave Earth’s orbit and head in the direction of the moon — but not before “dropping off” a number of small satellites called CubeSats, while it’s on its way. These CubeSats will perform a series of experiments and demonstrations unrelated to the Artemis mission in deep space, such as exposing living microorganisms to a deep space radiation environment for the first time in more than 40 years.

 Once in lunar orbit, Orion will collect data and allow mission controllers to assess its performance for about a week. When ready to return home, Orion will use its in-space propulsion system provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) together with the moon’s gravity to head back to Earth. The ESA service module will provide – apart from in-space propulsion – also power, air and water for the astronauts of the future missions.

About 3 weeks and more than 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km) later, the Artemis 1 mission will end with a test of Orion’s return capabilities by directing it to land near a recovery ship off the coast of Baja, California. All of this might sound like a lot of intricate, technical work. And it is, but don’t worry — this helpful NASA video illustrates the entire mission:

Although the coronavirus pandemic slowed down the testing of SLS, the process is now resuming at the agency’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Boeing led the construction of the megarocket SLS and is now engaged in a  core testing process named the green run. It’ll culminate in a hot-fire test, where the rocket fires up its engines while being tied down to the ground, and endures each step of a launch as if it were really taking place. This test-run was originally scheduled for November 2020, and will likely take place “soon” in order to keep things on track for the Artmeis I launch in 2021.

After the hot fire test, the core stage will be refurbished and brought to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, for even more tests. The development of Orion, led by Lockheed Martin and Airbus Defense and Space, has encountered its own delays, although the spaceship is on track to be ready to begin Artemis 1 launch preparations within the next few months.

The second mission – Artemis II – will test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard, and is scheduled for August 2023. Going as planned, this will be the first crewed spacecraft to travel beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Future crew exploration missions onboard Orion will dock with Gateway, an outpost NASA plans to build in orbit around the moon to support sustainable, long-term human return to the lunar surface. NASA lunar director Marshall Smith says:

We don’t need to take the giant leap all at one time. For a future mission, after we demonstrate that we can get to the moon and get a lander to work, we can then have them both dock with the Gateway.

Artemis III, the mission to return to the surface of the moon, is currently scheduled for 2024.

Bottom line: Artemis I is an uncrewed test flight where the crew module  Orion will launch with the Space Launch System, designed to be the most powerful rocket in the world. It is the first of a series of missions aimed to bring humans back to the moon and eventually onwards to Mars.

Read more from EarthSky: NASA to test its SLS megarocket in the coming weeks


Lia Rovira