NASA has set a date for the test of the technologies it hopes will see it return to the Moon and explore Mars: February 2022.
The agency on Saturday announced that its Orion spacecraft has been stacked atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and if all tests go well is expected to make an uncrewed test flight around the Moon.
The mission – the first in the Artemis program – is billed as "the first integrated test of NASA's deep space exploration systems". NASA's plan is to send the SLS into space, whereupon the Orion capsule will head for the Moon.
Orion is designed to house up to six astronauts and sustain them for up to six months, thanks to its coupling with a service module stocked with supplies, fuel, and solar panels.
The Artemis 1 mission plan calls for a trip around the Moon, including orbits just 100km above Luna's surface that will help Orion into a retrograde orbit around 70,000km from Earth's sole natural satellite. The capsule and service module will spend six days in that orbit, allowing NASA to monitor and test its systems to prove its readiness for crewed missions
A detailed mission plan can be viewed in the video below.
NASA's not set a specific day for the Artemis 1 launch – perhaps because five tests remain before the mission is certified as ready to fly. The Artemis program has experienced many delays, so it would be no surprise if the February date slipped.
The Artemis program aims to send humans to the Moon, establish a permanent base there, and construct a "gateway" orbiting Luna that serves as a staging point for missions to the lunar surface and for crewed missions to other destinations in the solar system. The gateway is scheduled to launch in 2023, and the first crewed mission to the Moon is expected the following year. It is currently a bit fuzzy thanks to delays designing a suitable space suit.
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The Artemis program is controversial because of that sort of delay and numerous cost overruns – plus the fact that private space outfits appear to have developed superior tech while NASA worked on its own efforts.
SpaceX's Starship, for example, has a spec that is more powerful than the SLS, and is rather more reusable.
There's also lots to like about Artemis, as it will mark NASA's return to crewed operations a decade after the last space shuttle flight. The program also plans to do bucketloads of science, and to set the stage for missions to Mars. ®