All you need to know about the Artemis mission to the moon
By Kevin Nolan
This week's Artemis launch is the first of three groundbreaking NASA moon expeditions in the coming years
The last people to travel beyond Earth's orbit were the crew of Apollo 17 who journeyed to the Moon 50 years ago. The success of the Apollo program gave rise to aspirations of a permanent presence on the Moon and to send people to Mars. But at a cost of 3% of the United States' GDP, Apollo was unsustainable and any long-term presence in deep space unviable.
The intervening decades have seen extraordinary advances with Earth-orbiting satellites, the International Space Station, space telescopes, and the robotic exploration of the Solar System and especially Mars. But as it was 100 times more difficult to land a person on the Moon than to reach Earth's orbit, a sustainable engagement with deep space has remained prohibitive - until now.
In response to Space Shuttle disasters, the US decided in 2004 to refocus its humans-to-space priorities back to deep space. The success of the robotic Mars program and the ISS, as well as advances in technology, have guided NASA to the point where they can just about consider a sustainable engagement with the Moon and even contemplate sending people to Mars. Such aspirations for deep space are finally being realised through what is called the Artemis program.
In Greek mythology, Artemis was Apollo's twin sister, an apt title for a program designed to land the first woman on the Moon, which is slated for 2025. More broadly, Artemis is NASA's new deep space program, in collaboration with international partners like the European Space Agency. Through what are called the Artemis accords, NASA is reaffirming its commitment to sustainable deep space human exploration for the benefit of all. The goals of Artemis not only include sending people to Moon, but also establishing a lunar base in its southern-polar region, a Moon-orbiting space-station called the Lunar Gateway, and to prepare for Mars.
Core requirements of the program include a new super-heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS), a new spaceship called Orion and to re-establish their ground control infrastructure abandoned with Apollo, now repurposed for the 21st century. With all such components operating at a fraction of the cost of Apollo, NASA is finally ready to reengage deep space. The first mission of this new era - called Artemis 1 - launched on 15th November.
At 99m in height, the SLS is slightly shorter than Saturn-V, but much more powerful. Despite cost overruns and delays, SLS is complete, and costs one-quarter of what Saturn-V cost to run. It is the most powerful rocket ever built and the only one capable of sending Orion to the Moon and to deliver 130-tonnes to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) needed to construct the Lunar Gateway or future Mars spaceships. Currently, nine SLS rockets are contracted from Boeing.
For now, SLS's goal is to deliver people to the Moon onboard the new Orion spaceship, the most sophisticated spacecraft ever made. Orion's Service Module - built by ESA/Airbus - provides the propulsion and power to take four astronauts from outside Earth-orbit to the Moon and safely home. Orion can operate for up to 21 days, which is pivotal for constructing the Lunar Gateway.
Of course, none of this can operate without an extensive ground-based infrastructure. NASA have revitalised their huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Launch Control Centre and Pad Complexes at Kennedy Space Centre, including the construction of new billion-dollar launch towers and crawler-transporters to bring each SLS to its launch pad.
Artemis 1 will bring Orion to within 100km of the Moon and travel further beyond the Moon than any previous lunar spacecraft. During the mission, systems will be put through their paces including the deployment of 10 CubeSats around and onto the Moon. Onboard mannequins with thousands of attached sensors will characterise every aspect to sending people to the Moon. All going well, Orion will re-enter Earth's atmosphere on October 10th at 40,000kph - faster than any previous spacecraft - for a parachute-controlled splashdown off the coast of San Diego.
The next parts of the mission are already under construction. Artemis 2 is slated to bring four people to orbit the Moon in 2024, and Artemis 3 is scheduled to land the first woman and person of colour on the Moon in 2025. This landing is dependent on the delivery of a new Lunar-Lander by SpaceX. NASA hopes to then build the Lunar-Gateway with ESA, establish a lunar base and launch one SLS mission every year for the foreseeable future while building toward a human mission to Mars.
Along with the emerging ambitions of Europe, China and companies like SpaceX, Artmesis points to humanity being finally ready to boldly go where no one has gone before. Thanks to this mission, we can now expect an exciting new era of deep space exploration.
This article was previously published on RTE Brainstorm