The American space agency is counting down the days until the launch of its massive new Moon rocket, the Space Launch System.
SLS is Nasa’s most powerful vehicle to date, and it will serve as the basis for the Artemis project, which intends to reintroduce humans to the lunar surface after a 50-year hiatus.
The rocket is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Monday at 08:33 local time (12:33 GMT; 13:33 BST).
Its mission will be to propel the Orion test capsule far from Earth.
This spacecraft will make a large arc around the Moon before returning home to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean in six weeks.
Orion is unmanned for this demonstration, but assuming all of the hardware functions correctly, astronauts will board a series of increasingly demanding missions beginning in 2024.
“Everything we’re doing with this Artemis I flight is through the prism of what can we prove out and what can we demonstrate that would bring down risk for the Artemis II crewed mission,” Nasa astronaut Randy Bresnik revealed.
The US space agency has multiple possibilities to fly SLS-Orion during the next week, but it will want to choose the one right in front of it.
At this time of year, the weather in Florida is quite volatile, with regular electrical storms passing over the spaceport.
Indeed, the lightning towers on the pad have been hit multiple times in recent days.
Monday is an excellent day to fly because circumstances are usually the calmest early in the morning.
“Basically, the start of the launch window, or right after 08:30 a.m., has an 80% likelihood of favourable weather,” meteorologist Melody Lovin said.
However, if technical concerns lead the launch to be delayed beyond the authorized two-hour window, the chance drops to 60% due to the possibility of showers. It is not permissible for the rocket to take off in the rain.
Is Artemis the Apollo of a new era?
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first tiny steps on the Moon in 1969, they heralded the beginning of a golden age of space exploration. The Apollo program altered our perceptions of our planet and ourselves. After 50 years, humanity has returned to the Moon’s orbit. And for those who were unable to experience the Apollo missions in person, Artemis is hoped to inspire a new generation.
The new missions will be unique. Nasa intends to land the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon, demonstrating that space exploration is available to all. And the lunar surface is only the beginning.
Up to 200,000 people are anticipated to crowd the beaches and causeways surrounding Kennedy. On Sunday, campervans began staking out the best spots.
The ascent should be spectacular.
SLS will launch with 39.1 meganewtons (8.8 million pounds) of thrust. That’s over 15% more than the Saturn V rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.
On takeoff, the SLS’s engines could power the equivalent of over 60 Concorde supersonic jets.
“This rocket will be bigger, louder, and more stunning than any you’ve seen before,” said Lorna Kenna, vice president of the Jacobs Space Operations Group, a major contractor at Kennedy.
“There’s nothing quite like feeling sound – not just hearing it, but feeling it wash over you.”
The mission’s main goal is revealed at the very end.
Engineers are particularly concerned about Orion’s heatshield’s ability to withstand the tremendous temperatures it would encounter during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Orion will be approaching at 38,000km/h (24,000mph), or 32 times the speed of sound.
“Even the strengthened carbon-carbon that protected the shuttle was only good for roughly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,600 degrees Celsius),” said Mike Hawes, the Orion programme manager at aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
“We’re now approaching more than 4,000 degrees (2,200C).
We’ve returned to the Apollo ablative substance known as Avocat.
It’s in sections with a gap filler, and testing is a top priority.”
This voyage is significant not only for Nasa but also for the European Space Agency.
It has given Orion the service module.
This is the portion at the back of the capsule that propels it through space. It’s an in-kind donation that Europe hopes will lead to its citizens being included in future Moon missions.
Missions to Artemis IX are currently in the works.
At that point, the Moon should have dwellings and roving vehicles for astronauts to use.
However, Artemis is eventually viewed as a testing ground for getting people to Mars.
“President Obama established a timeline for this. He stated the year 2033 “NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was recalled.
“Each successive administration has backed the effort, and I’m now told that the realistic timescale is the late 2030s, possibly 2040.”