The first fully-integrated flight of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, Artemis 1, is set to happen next week to begin a 42-day journey to the Moon and back.
Artemis 1 will fly from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The agency is targeting a two-hour window that opens at 8:33 a.m. EDT (12:33 UTC) Aug. 29, 2022. There are also launch opportunities on Sept. 2 and Sept. 5.
While this is an uncrewed test flight, it’ll be the first time a spacecraft designed for humans will travel to the Moon since the final Apollo mission in 1972.
When in low Earth orbit, the Orion spacecraft will be sent toward a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon before returning to Earth. The 42-day mission will test much of Orion’s systems, including its heat shield, and ensure the vehicle is ready to fly humans.
Once complete, assuming all goes well, it’ll pave the way for people to fly to the Moon on Artemis 2 as early as 2024. That mission will see three NASA astronauts and one Canadian astronaut fly on a free-return trajectory around the Moon.
SLS stands 322 feet (98 meters) tall and has two five-segment solid rocket boosters that use segments from the space shuttle program. Moreover, the core stage — the largest single stage NASA has ever built — uses four RS-25 engines, which were also used on the space shuttle and utilize liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants.
At liftoff, the combined twin solid rocket boosters and four RS-25 engines will produce a thrust of 8.8 million pounds — the most of any rocket sent to orbit to date. Even more powerful than the space shuttle and Saturn V.
The boosters will burn for about two minutes before falling away. Meanwhile, the core stage will continue firing until about 8.5 minutes after liftoff. From there, the rocket’s upper stage, a United Launch Alliance-built Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, or ICPS, will briefly place the Orion spacecraft into orbit.
About 90 minutes after leaving Florida, the ICPS will propel Orion, which includes a crew module and European Service Module, into a trans-lunar injection burn.
Also tagging along on this Moon mission are 10 CubeSats situated between the ICPS and Orion spacecraft. They’ll be deployed in the hours after Orion separates from the ICPS.
Orion will take about 4 days to reach the Moon. It will then use its main engine twice — once during a powered lunar flyby and another time to place it into a distant retrograde orbit.
About two weeks later, Orion will use its main engine twice again — once to leave the distant retrograde orbit and another during a powered lunar flyby to send the spacecraft back toward Earth.
Assuming a launch on Aug. 29, Orion is expected to splashdown off the coast of San Diego on Oct. 10.
The long road to Artemis 1
The SLS rocket has been in development by Boeing since 2011. The Orion spacecraft has been in development by Lockheed Martin since 2006.
Orion is a holdover from the Constellation program, which was started in 2005 by the George W. Bush administration with the goal to return to the Moon by 2020. Constellation was ultimately canceled in 2011 under the Obama administration. However, the United States Congress continued the Orion program and created the SLS program in order to develop a rocket and spacecraft to someday take humans back into deep space.
At first, SLS and Orion were expected to be used to fly to an asteroid by 2025. That mission was scrapped in 2017 by the Trump administration in favor of a return to the Moon by 2024. The program was named Artemis after the goddess of the Moon and twin sister of Apollo.
By then both SLS and Orion were well into development, so the same designs were repurposed for a new mission.
During the Biden administration, the date of 2024 was quietly removed, as most experts deemed that was an unrealistic goal. However, the funding increases, started by the Trump administration, continued during the Biden era.
The goal of the Artemis program is to return humans to the Moon in a sustainable way, as well as with international and commercial partners.
Following the uncrewed Artemis 1 flight, and 2024’s crewed lap around the Moon, NASA plans to launch a third SLS rocket, Artemis 3, likely in 2025 or 2026, to send four astronauts to meet up with a SpaceX built Starship-based lunar lander. From there, two people will use the lander to touch down on the lunar South Pole region.
NASA has chosen the South Pole for its landings because of the likelihood of easily accessible water ice in permanently shadowed craters. The hope for future missions is to learn how to utilize this resource for various consumables, including oxygen, water and rocket fuel.
Later Artemis missions will see the buildup of a small space station in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. Eventually NASA plans a semi-permanent base camp at the South Pole.
The Artemis program is also being used to prepare NASA for eventual missions to Mars in the 2030s.
Videos courtesy of Orbital Velocity
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