Artemis program: Here’s how NASA plans to return to the Moon

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NASA’s Artemis mission aims to put humans back on the moon for the first time after the Apollo 17 mission, fifty years ago. The space agency has built the most powerful rocket ever, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will carry all the spacecraft part of Artemis missions. The Artemis missions will also send the first woman and first person of colour to the lunar surface. Here is everything you need to know about Artemis and NASA’s grand plans for a long-overdue return to the Moon.

Artemis I, II, III and IV  

The expected launch time for Artemis 1 is August 2022, though earlier this was supposed to be in May 2022. Originally, it was supposed to take place in 2021, so this remains delayed so far. The Artemis 1 mission will be an uncrewed tested flight, while the second mission will have a crew. The lunar landing is only expected in Artemis III, which right now is scheduled for 2025. Artemis IV will be a crewed mission to the Lunar gateway, while missions V to VIII propose to land more astronauts on the Moon for further research.

After the wet dress rehearsal, NASA is preparing to launch the Artemis I mission. (Image credit: NASA)

So far, NASA has successfully completed the wet dress rehearsal for the Artemis I mission on June 20. During the rehearsal, teams loaded cryogenic (supercold) propellant into the rocket’s tanks and performed a launch countdown and simulated handover to the automated launch sequence.

With the rehearsal, the team ensured that the SLS rocket, the Orion spacecraft and associated systems are ready to launch on the Artemis I test flight. After the successful wet dress rehearsal, NASA also successfully launched the CAPSTONE mission, an important milestone for the Artemis missions.

CAPSTONE Mission: A new method of navigation in space

NASA successfully launched the CAPSTONE mission on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket at 3.25 PM IST on June 28. The spacecraft and the CubeSat satellite are on their way to a lunar orbit. The mission carries a dedicated payload flight computer and radio that will perform calculations to determine whether the CubeSat is on the right path.

The CubeSat will use NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) as a reference point for its position in space by communicating directly with the orbiter and utilising data from the crosslink to measure how far it is from LRO and how fast the distance between the two changes.

This information will be used to evaluate CAPSTONE’s autonomous navigation software, called Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS). Once successfully tested, the software will potentially allow future spacecraft to determine their location without having to rely completely on Earth-based tracking.

The CAPSTONE mission will test a new orbit that will be useful for future missions. (Image credit: NASA)

The CAPSTONE mission will also test a special kind of orbit called a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO). This is a very elongated orbit and its location is at a precise balance point between the gravities of the Earth and the Moon. This will offer stability for long-term missions and will require minimal energy to maintain. This would be ideal for Gateway, NASA’s planned space station orbiting the moon.

Artemis I: Around the Moon with the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft

Artemis I will be the first integrated test of the Orion spacecraft, SLS and the ground systems at the Kennedy Space Centre. It will be an uncrewed flight test that will build the foundation for human deep space exploration and demonstrate NASA’s commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond.

The mission will see the launch of the most powerful rocket in the world. It will travel over 450,000 kilometres from Earth, and go to the moon in a trip that takes place over several days. The Orion spacecraft will fly about 100 kilometres above the surface of the Moon before using the satellite’s gravitation force to propel itself into an opposite orbit about 70,000 km away from the Moon.

It will stay in that orbit for about six days to collect data and allow the mission team to assess the performance of the spacecraft.

For the journey back to Earth, the spacecraft will need another close flyby at around 100 kilometres above the Moon’s surface. Orion will then use precisely timed engine firing in conjunction with the Moon’s gravity to accelerate in the direction of Earth.

The spacecraft will move in this trajectory to enter the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of about 11 kilometres per second, producing heat of up to 2,760 degrees Celsius. It will then be guided to make a precision landing within eyesight of the recovery ship off the coast of Baja, California.

The Orion spacecraft will remain powered before it is recovered by the US Navy and NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems team.

Lunar Gateway: The first space station that will orbit the Moon

NASA’s Gateway program is building a small human-tended space station that will orbit the moon in the NRHO. It is aimed at providing capabilities to support NASA’s Artemis campaign to the Moon and for other missions beyond the Moon, including Mars and the asteroid belt.

Its capabilities include docking ports for different visiting spacecraft for crews to live and work and onboard science investigation equipment to study heliophysics, human health and life science. NASA has selected SpaceX to provide launch services for Gateway space station modules. It is currently estimated that Gateway will launch no earlier than November 2024 on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. But before that, NASA will first launch Artemis I.

Gateway will serve as a lunar orbital outpost. (Image credit: NASA)

The second flight will be crewed and will go on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard. As the missions go on, the SLS rocket will evolve from its initial configuration which can send more than 26 metric tons to the moon to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons helping NASA launch crewed missions to the Moon and more missions beyond, including an eventual landing on Mars.





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