NASA is getting closer to carrying out its first crewed lunar missions in 50 years under the Artemis program, but it must first test the spaceflight hardware supporting the effort.
To share the space program with more people, NASA just released three explainer videos (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 upcoming Artemis II crewed mission, which will take the same route. If both missions go well, Artemis III will place the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface possibly in 2025, marking the first crewed lunar landing since the last 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 propel the Orion spacecraft to the moon at the start of the Artemis I mission, with the rocket’s first stage dropping shortly after launch.
As the second video shows, when Orion approaches the moon, gravity pulls it towards the lunar surface. At an altitude of 60 miles, Mission Control will ignite Orion’s engines to send it into what’s called a remote retrograde orbit (DRO) about 40,000 miles above the surface of the moon.
Once it has reached the target altitude for the DRO, a second engine burn will stabilize the spacecraft in its new orbit.
The Orion will remain at the DRO for six days, giving NASA plenty of time to collect data on the spacecraft as part of efforts to assess its performance.
NASA plans to put astronauts on the Orion spacecraft from Artemis II, so a key part of the test mission is getting the spacecraft safely back to Earth. To do this, Mission Control will turn on Orion’s engines again to pull him out of the DRO and send him back to 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 journey back to Earth on a journey that will take five days.
The spacecraft will hit Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of around 25,000 mph, putting enormous pressure on the underside of the vehicle as it descends. But its purpose-built heat shield, along with the parachutes the Orion will deploy shortly before splashdown, appear poised to ensure a safe return home.
NASA is set to perform the final tests on the SLS rocket this month ahead of the Artemis I launch scheduled for August.