NASA is aiming to launch its uncrewed lunar mission Artemis 1 in February next year, the space agency said on Friday, the first step in the US’ plan to return humans to the moon.
The agency had initially hoped to launch the test flight by the end of this year, with astronauts set to walk on the moon by 2024.
It achieved a major milestone on Wednesday when it stacked the Orion crew capsule atop its Space Launch System megarocket, which stands 98m tall inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After further tests, it would be wheeled out to the launchpad for a “wet dress rehearsal” in January, with the first window for launch opening in February, officials told reporters on a call.
“The February launch period opens on the 12th and our last opportunity in February is on the 27th,” Artemis 1 mission manager Mike Sarafin said, adding that the next windows are in March and April.
These potential launch periods are dependent on orbital mechanics and the relative position of the Earth with respect to the moon. The mission duration is expected to be four to six weeks.
NASA would also deploy small satellites, known as CubeSats, to perform experiments and technology demonstrations.
Artemis 2 is scheduled for 2023 and Artemis 3 for the following year, when humans would walk on the moon for the first time since 1972. Both missions are likely to be pushed back.
NASA said the moonwalkers would include the first woman and first person of color to make the trip.
The space agency is seeking to establish a sustainable presence on the moon as well as use the lessons it learns to plan a crewed trip to Mars in the 2030s.
Orion first flew into space in 2014, launched by a Delta IV rocket, making two circumnavigations of Earth and testing its heat shield on re-entry into the atmosphere.
This time, the capsule would travel much faster and the temperature would be much higher when it returns from the moon, Sarafin said.
Artemis 1 has several objectives: to demonstrate Orion’s ability to return from the moon and operate in deep space where it is “much colder than in low Earth orbit,” and to successfully recover the spacecraft, he added.
The mission also plans to study radiation and take selfies of the capsule with the moon in the background.
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