NASA’s Artemis I is now set to blast-off on Wednesday after a series of delays and its mission has never been more crucial. It is set to pave the way for humanity’s return to the Moon for the first time since 1972 and eventual missions to Mars. Having largely endured the ravages of Hurricane Nicole last week, the 322-feet-tall Space Launch System (SLS) rocket has been undergoing minor repairs. However, on Friday, NASA associate administrator Jim Free said that there is presently nothing preventing the space agency from making a launch attempt this week. And meteorologists with the US Space Force are predicting a 90 percent chance of favourable weather conditions on Wednesday.
According to NASA, Artemis I “will be the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems.” These include the Orion spacecraft, the SLS rocket — for which Wednesday’s launch would be its maiden flight — and the ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA added: “The first in a series of increasingly complex missions, Artemis I will be an uncrewed flight test that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond.
“During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans have ever flown.
“It will travel 280,000 miles from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon. Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before.”
An experimental mission
According to Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin, “this is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known.
“It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.”
To that end, the Orion capsule will be launching on Wednesday without a human crew — but carrying three radiation-bearing humans to measure the potential health impacts of the trip.
Furthermore, a key goal of the test flight will not be in the launch but in the return to Earth — ensuring that Orion’s heat shields are capable of enduring atmospheric re-entry.
READ MORE: NASA checking Artemis rocket for damage after Nicole’s 100mph winds
If it’s successful…
Assuming Artemis I proves successful, this year’s mission will be followed up by Artemis II in around May 2024, which will carry a four-person crew more than 5,523 miles beyond the Moon — further than any human has ever been from the Earth — on an 8 to 10 day flight test.
Building on this, no earlier than 2025, the Artemis III mission will see four astronauts travel in an Orion capsule to the planned Lunar Gateway space station in the Moon’s orbit, spending a total of 30 days in space. Two of these explorers — including the first woman and person of colour to walk on the Moon — will be carried down to the lunar surface by the Gateway’s “human landing system”.
They will spend a week exploring the surface of the Moon’s South Pole — a region previously unvisited by humans — conducting various experiments including the sampling of the water ice that was first detected on the lunar surface back in 1971.
Alongside launching the Artemis programme proper, Wednesday’s launch will also see the SLS blast off with ten cubesats — box-shaped miniature satellites with 3.9-inch-long faces — as part of its cargo, each with their scientific missions of their own.
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One of these is NASA’s Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper (LunaH-Map), a “tiny planetary science mission with big goals”, which will be studying the presence of water ice at the Moon’s poles.Water ice is of considerable interest, as it could potentially be broken down into its oxygen and hydrogen components in order to provide astronauts on future lunar missions with both life-sustaining air and a means to produce fuel.
After Artemis I ferries LunaH-Map into orbit around the Moon, the plucky little craft will be producing a so-called “neutron map” to reveal where — and in what quantities water ice might be hidden across the lunar South Pole.
Water ice can exist here because the shadowed regions around the pole are incredibly cold — with temperatures as low as -274 to -400 F — which traps the ice by stopping it from sublimating into a gas.
According to Arizona State University, which won the contract to develop LunaH-Map back in 2015, the cubesat “will help us understand the origins of water on the Moon and how it has been redistributed since the Moon’s formation. The maps will also be used to plan future missions and landing sites for robotic and human water–ice prospecting.”