NASA is poised to usher in a new era of lunar exploration

T-38 airplanes, an astronaut training component at NASA, fly over the SLS on Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy

The US space agency is counting down to the launch of the giant rocket of the new moon – the Space Launch System.

The SLS is the most powerful vehicle ever developed by Nasa and will form the basis of the Artemis project which aims to return humans to the lunar surface after a 50-year absence.

The rocket is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center at 08:33 local time (12:33 GMT, 13:33 BST) on Monday.

His job will be to propel a test capsule, called Orion, away from Earth.

This spacecraft will loop around the Moon in a large arc before returning home on a dive in the Pacific Ocean in six weeks.

Orion is uncrewed for this demonstration, but assuming all the hardware works as it should, astronauts will board the craft for a future series of increasingly complex missions, starting in 2024.

“Everything we’re doing with this Artemis I flight is looking through the lens of what we can prove and what we can show that will de-risk the Artemis II crewed mission,” explained Nasa astronaut Randy Bresnik.

Graphic SLS

Graphic SLS

The US space agency has several opportunities next week to fly SLS-Orion, but it will want to get the option right in front of it.

The weather here in Florida is very dynamic this time of year, with frequent electrical storms passing over the spaceport.

Indeed, pillow lightning has struck several times in recent days.

Early morning is when conditions are usually calmer, which makes Monday a great day to fly.

“Basically, the beginning of the launch window, or shortly after 8:30 a.m., has an 80 percent chance of fair weather,” said meteorologist Melody Lovin.

However, if technical problems push the launch to the back of the two-hour window, the chance drops to 60%, due to the possible encroachment of showers. The rocket is not allowed to take off in the rain.

Morelle byline

Morelle byline

Is Artemis the Apollo for a new generation?

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first baby steps on the Moon, they ushered in a golden age of space exploration. The Apollo program changed the way we see our planet and ourselves. Now, 50 years later, the Moon is once again in humanity’s sights. And for those who never got to see the Apollo missions for themselves, the hope is that Artemis will inspire a new generation.

The new missions will be different. Nasa plans to land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon – showing that space exploration is open to all. And the lunar surface is just the beginning. NASA’s ambition lies even further, its sights set on Mars. And this will really be a huge leap in experience.

Over 200,000 people are expected to line the beaches and trails around Kennedy. Campervans started staking out the best pitches on Sunday.

The climb must be spectacular.

SLS will pull 39.1 meganewtons (8.8 million pounds) of thrust from the pad. That’s nearly 15% more than the Saturn V rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts on their way to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s.

In other words, the SLS’s engines could power the equivalent of nearly 60 supersonic Concorde planes at takeoff.

Lightning in KSC

Lightning in KSC

“This rocket is going to be bigger, more powerful and more impressive than any you’ve seen before,” said Lorna Kenna, vice president of Jacobs Space Operations Group, a major contractor at Kennedy.

“There’s nothing like feeling the sound—not just hearing it, but feeling it wash over you.”

The main objective of the mission actually comes right at the end.

Engineers are most concerned to see that Orion’s heat shield will handle the extreme temperatures it will encounter upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Orion will come very fast – at 38,000 km/h (24,000 mph), or 32 times the speed of sound.

“Even the reinforced carbon-carbon that protected the shuttle was only good for about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,600 C),” said Mike House, the Orion program manager at aerospace company Lockheed Martin.

“Now, we’re coming up to over 4,000 degrees (2,200 C). We’ve gone back to the Apollo removal material called Avcoat. It’s in vacuum-filled blocks, and testing is a high priority.”

Orion graphic

Orion graphic

This flight is a big moment not only for Nasa, but also for the European Space Agency.

It provided the service unit for Orion. This is the rear section that propels the capsule into space. It’s a contribution in kind that Europe hopes will lead to its citizens being included in future trips to the lunar surface.

Missions to Artemis IX are currently being planned.

At this stage there should be habitats and rovers on the Moon for use by astronauts.

But ultimately, Artemis is seen as a proving ground for getting people to Mars.

“The timeline for this was set by President Obama. He said 2033,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recalled.

“Every successive administration has supported the program, and the realistic timeline I’m now informed of is the late 2030s, maybe even the 2040s.”

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