CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — It’s make or break time for NASA’s new moon rocket.
With 8.8 million pounds of thrust, the rocket – called the Space Launch System (SLS) – is designed to be more powerful than NASA’s powerful Saturn V. Its Orion space capsule is one-third the size of its Apollo ancestor. Yet neither spacecraft passed the ultimate test: a trip to the moon and back.
That will change on Monday (August 29), when NASA aims to launch the SLS and Orion mega-rocket on Artemis 1a test flight that serves as the vanguard of the agency’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon by 2025. Liftoff is scheduled for 8:33 a.m. EDT (1233 GMT) from Pad 39B here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. You can watch the launch live online Monday from 6:30 a.m. EDT (10:30 a.m. GMT).
“Our approaches to zero hour for the Artemis generation,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission manager, told reporters on Saturday. “We have a keen sense of anticipation.”
This anticipation is not something NASA possesses alone. At the top 200,000 spectators are expected (opens in a new tab) to flood Florida’s Space Coast here to catch a glimpse of NASA’s first lunar rocket to fly in over 50 years. Their hopes mirror those of NASA for a successful mission where success is far from certain.
“It’s a very risky mission,” said Jim Free, NASA’s associate director for exploration systems development. “We have a lot of things that could go wrong during the mission in places we could get back to sooner, or we might have to abort to get home.”
In fact, the mission may not launch at all.
“Our potential outcomes on Monday are that we can enter the window, or we can scrub for any number of reasons,” Sarafin said. “We are not going to promise that we are going to leave on Monday.”
NASA has a two-hour window to try to launch Artemis 1 on Monday which closes at 10:33 a.m. EDT (2:33 p.m. GMT). There’s an 80% chance of good weather at the start of the window, but that slips to 60% later in the day due to the possibility of rain. NASA has backup launch days on September 2 and 5, if needed.
Saturday, NASA detected five lightning strikes at Pad 39B, but none of the strikes affected the SLS rocket itself. They all hit the pad’s lightning protection system, a network of towers and catenary wires, and weren’t strong enough to pose a problem for the launch, said NASA senior test manager Jeff Spaulding. Artemis 1, in a Sunday update.
A long road to the launch pad
NASA has been trying to build a giant new rocket for nearly two decades. In 2004, the agency announced plans for a massive rocket, then called the Ares Vas part of its Constellation program to return to the moon by 2020. This program was eventually cancelled, replaced by what became the Artemis programAlthough the Orion spacecraft survived the transition. Five-segment solid rocket boosters (slightly larger than those used on NASA’s shuttle program), originally part of Constellation Ares 1 rocket to launch Orion, has also found new life in the SLS.
“We rose to our challenges, like every other part of this whole rocket,” Bruce Tiller, NASA’s SLS booster manager, told Space.com in an interview. “Everyone has had their challenges that they’ve overcome over these years. And now I think we’re as ready to go as we can be. And that’s really exciting.”
Congress asked NASA to build the space launch system more than a decade ago, calling on the agency to use legacy shuttle hardware, like the derived solid rocket boosters and RS-25 base engines. to build a new vehicle for deep space exploration. The first test flight was then scheduled for 2017. This is way behind schedule.
“I would just say space is tough,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who was in the Senate as a Florida senator when the SLS was approved, said Saturday of what the agency learned at the time. over time. “You develop new systems, and that takes money and it takes time.”
Simple but aggressive goals
Nasa has “very simple, but aggressive” goals for Artemis 1, Free said.
First, the mission must test Orion’s heat shield to ensure it can survive re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius) as it returns from the moon at 25,000 mph. (40,000 km/h). NASA also wants to make sure SLS delivers Orion to its lunar orbit to see how the spacecraft, which has a service module built by Airbus and provided by the European Space Agencyperforms in deep space.
The space agency also wants to retrieve the capsule after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean to see how it fared overall. It carries more than 1,000 sensors to record all facets of flight, NASA said.
At its farthest point from EarthOrion will be 290,000 miles from our planet and 40,000 miles beyond the moon – the farthest a crewed capsule has visited to date (breaking a record set by the Apollo 13 crew in 1970). Its 42-day mission is much longer than the 10 days of a crewed flight, NASA said.
Despite its length, the mission is expected to complete just one and a half orbits of the moon as it flies in a long looping orbit in the opposite direction to the moon’s path around Earth. This “distant retrograde orbit” will bring Orion about 60 miles (97 km) closer and as far away as 40,000 miles, mission officials said.
Inside Orion is a space suit Model “Moonik” and humanoid torsos covered in sensors to measure the radiation environment the Artemis astronauts will have to endure. And perhaps the most important test: back to school, when Orion will hit earth’s atmospherejump a tiny bit, then dive back in for what NASA calls a “jump re-entry.”
“We’re pushing the vehicle to its limits, really stressing it out to get ready for the crew,” Sarafin said.
There are also scientific objectives. The The Artemis 1 mission includes 10 small cubesats testing technologies for deep space exploration. One, called NEA Pathfinderwill use a solar sail to leave the moon in search of a small asteroid while the others should support Artemis’ plans near the moon.
“Some of them are testing technology to navigate deep space. We even have one that travels farther, is going to encounter an asteroid,” said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist at the Missions Directorate. development of NASA’s exploration systems. “But some of them will focus more on the moon doing measurements of the motion, actually mapping where some of the water deposits might be.”
Astronauts back on the moon
If all goes well on Artemis 1, NASA will follow up with Artemis 2a crewed flight that will send four astronauts on a flyby mission around the moon in 2024. The time lag between missions is partly to wait and see how Orion works and also so NASA can use some of the avionics and d other components on Artemis 1 on crewed flight.
And if this Artemis 2 mission succeeds, NASA hopes to follow it up with its first crewed moon landing of the 21st century on Artemis 3 in 2025. This moon landing, which would send two astronauts – whose first woman on the moon — at the lunar south pole, depends on factors beyond SLS and Orion.
NASA needs new space suits and a massive lander to complete the Artemis 3 mission. SpaceX build a huge Spatialship lunar lander for NASA while other companies are developing Artemis Spacesuits. If either component is late, it will impact the agency’s plans.
“If our suits aren’t ready, we’re not going to land on the moon and the reverse is the same, if our suits are ready and Starship isn’t,” Free said.
But NASA stresses that it is committed to returning to the moon in a sustainable way, not just with footprints, flags and photos. The agency has already built hardware for Artemis 2 and future SLS boosters, with plans through at least Artemis 9.
NASA has handed out contracts to build components of a new Gateway space station around the moon to serve as a staging ground for lunar landings. And the ever-present target is Marchthat Nelson said NASA was aiming for a crewed landing in the late 2030s.
“There’s a really big universe to explore,” Nelson said. “This is the next step in this exploration and this time we are going with our international partners.”