UK readies for new space age as NASA’s Artemis I mission rolls out to launch pad

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Artemis I is to be the first launch of NASA’s long-delayed, 322-feet-tall SLS rocket — as well as the first in an increasingly complex series of missions aiming to return humans to the Moon for the first time since 1972’s Apollo 17. The launch, which will take place no earlier than August 29, will transport an uncrewed Orion capsule into space for a 20–25 day journey looping repeatedly around the Moon. The craft — bearing three radiation-measuring “phantoms”, including two female torsos and one life-size male manikin — will pass as close to the lunar surface as 62 miles, but also journey out some 40,000 miles beyond the Moon before it returns to Earth to splash down in the Pacific Ocean near California. A key goal of the test flight, in fact, will be to test that the heat shield on the “Orion” space capsule is capable of surviving atmospheric re-entry.

Hauled by a giant tractor, the SLS began its deliberate, 4.2-mile-long journey from its assembly building just before 10pm local time yesterday evening.

The massive rocket finally arrived at Pad 39B just after sunrise this morning.

NASA engineers now have just over a week and a half to finish prepping the rocket and the Orion capsule for the first launch window, which will arrive on August 29.

In the event that Artemis I is unable to blast off on this date — whether due to technical issues or unsuitable weather conditions — two backup launch slots have been pencilled in for September 2 and September 5.

During a briefing on the launch last week, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said: “To all of us that gaze up at the Moon, dreaming of the day humankind returns to the lunar surface — folks, we’re here!

“We are going back. And that journey, our journey, begins with Artemis I.”

He told BBC News: “The first crewed launch, Artemis II, is two years from now in 2024.

“We’re hoping that the first landing, Artemis III, will be in 2025.”

It is this third mission, NASA has promised, that will see the first woman step out onto the lunar surface.

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While Artemis I may be blasted into orbit on top of the SLS, propulsion for the Orion capsule will be provided by the European Space Agency-made European Service Module.

Airbus industrial manager Siân Cleaver told BBC News: “More than 10 countries in Europe have been working on this European Space Agency contribution.

“The European Service Module is not just a payload, it’s not just a piece of equipment — it’s a really critical element because Orion can’t get to the Moon without us.”

The ESA hopes that its contribution to Artemis I and its successors will eventually see a European nation on the crew of a lunar mission.

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UK Space Agency exploration science manager Libby Jackson said: “Seeing Artemis I finally make its way to the launchpad for the first launch of the SLS rocket is an important step for the global space community, as we prepare to return humans to the Moon, and seeing it roll out early is even more encouraging.

“The rocket will place the Orion spacecraft in orbit, which we will be able to track in the UK from Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall. This is a major step for our capacity to offer commercial lunar communications from the UK.

“The UK is also making important contributions to the Lunar Gateway, currently in development through the European Space Agency’s exploration programme, in line with the ambitious plans laid out in the National Space Strategy.”

“The Artemis programme marks the next chapter of human space exploration, and we look forward to continued involvement as it comes to life.”

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