NASA is getting closer to conducting its first crewed lunar missions in 50 years as part of the Artemis program, but first it has to test the spaceflight hardware supporting the endeavor.
To share the space program with more people, NASA has just released three video explainers (below) that describe the upcoming Artemis I mission in simple terms.
For the uninitiated, Artemis I will perform an uncrewed flyby of the moon as part of preparations for the subsequent crewed Artemis II mission, which will take the same path. If both missions go well, Artemis III will put the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface possibly in 2025, marking the first crewed lunar landing since the final Apollo mission in 1972.
The current plan is to launch Artemis I using NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft in a mission that could take place as early as this summer.
The first animation shows how the SLS rocket will power the Orion spacecraft toward the moon at the start of the Artemis I mission, with the rocket’s first stage falling away soon after launch.
As the second video shows, when the Orion approaches the moon, gravity will pull it toward the lunar surface. At an altitude of 60 miles, Mission Control will fire the Orion’s engines to send it toward what’s known as a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) about 40,000 miles above the moon’s surface.
Once it reaches the target altitude for DRO, a second engine burn will steady the spacecraft in its new orbit.
The Orion will remain in DRO for six days, giving NASA ample time to collect data from the spacecraft as part of efforts to assess its performance.
NASA is planning to put astronauts on the Orion spacecraft from Artemis II onwards, so a key part of the test mission is returning the spacecraft safely to Earth. To do this, Mission Control will fire the Orion’s engines again to take it out of the DRO and send it back toward the moon. At an altitude of 60 miles, a second engine burn will combine with the moon’s gravity to propel the spacecraft on a path back to Earth in a voyage that will take five days.
The spacecraft will hit Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of about 25,000 mph, putting huge stress on the underside of the vehicle during its descent. But its specially designed heat shield, along with the parachutes that the Orion will deploy shortly before splashdown, looks set to ensure a safe homecoming.
NASA is about to conduct final tests on the SLS rocket this month ahead of an Artemis I launch targeted for August.