Cape Canaveral. The last US astronauts landed on the moon almost 50 years ago. It was the crew of the “Apollo 17” mission – Eugene Cernan, Ron Evans and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt – who left their footprints on the dusty moon one last time in December 1972. After that, the US space agency Nasa stopped its moon missions – for cost reasons, but also because there was a lack of political support. But the dream of returning to the moon one day remained.
However, this turned out to be much more difficult than expected. Originally, NASA wanted to start its Artemis 1 mission on August 29th. However, technical problems and the weather forced the space agency to repeatedly postpone the launch of the 98-meter high heavy-duty rocket SLS (Space Launch System), with the spacecraft “Orion” on board.
If all goes well, the rocket could finally lift off on November 16 at 7:04 am. The replacement date is November 19th.
Follow the Artemis 1 launch here in the live stream
Moon mission: “Orion” flies with German engineering
Artemis 1 is just a first step on the way back to the moon. The mission should last a maximum of 42 days. The Orion spacecraft is scheduled to orbit the moon for several weeks, return to Earth and finally land in the water off the coast of San Diego. It is an unmanned test flight, meaning there are no people on board, unlike previous Apollo missions. Only Helga and Zohar, two blue radiation measurement dummies from the German Aerospace Center (DLR), will take part in the flight. There are also numerous measuring instruments, scientific experiments and memorabilia that are said to travel to the moon.
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The “Orion” capsule is powered by the so-called European Service Module, ESM for short, built in Germany. “This is an unprecedented vote of confidence from NASA in the capabilities of our industry and Germany as a partner,” said Walther Pelzer, head of the German Space Agency. The ESM, which weighs around 15 tons, contains the main engine and supplies the power for the spacecraft via four solar sails. It also regulates the capsule’s climate and temperature, and stores fuel, oxygen and water supplies for the future crew.
Astronauts are expected to fly on board by the end of 2023
NASA has ordered six of these modules from the European Space Agency (ESA). Because further moon missions are to follow: The second Artemis mission is planned for the end of 2023 – then for the first time with real astronauts on board. In the third mission, Artemis 3, people are finally supposed to land on the moon again – including for the first time a woman and a non-white astronaut. In the future, the journey to the moon could also involve a stopover: the plan is to set up a space station in lunar orbit, the so-called Lunar Gateway.
The European Service Module weighs around 15 tons at launch and is the main engine of the Orion spacecraft.
© Credit: Frank Thomas Koch/Airbus/Flickr/Released under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“To all those who look at the moon and dream of the day when mankind returns to the lunar surface – folks, we are going back!” Nasa boss Nelson proudly announced at a press conference on the moon mission in early August. “This journey – our journey – begins with Artemis 1.” For him, the mission is just the beginning. In his eyes, it not only paves the way back to the moon, but also for future missions to Mars. “Artemis 1 shows that we can do great things. Great things that unite people; Things that benefit mankind. Things like Apollo that inspire the world.”
Mission is not under a lucky star
The pathetic words may be understandable. But in reality, space fans first had to be patient. The Artemis 1 mission does not seem to be under a lucky star. After the failed launch attempt at the end of August, another attempt on September 3 was aborted just a few hours before launch. In both cases, among other things, a fuel leak played a role.
“The SLS rocket was stillborn from the start,” said Martin Tajmar. The professor of space systems at the Technical University of Dresden criticized above all the decision of the US Congress to build the rocket with components that date back to the SpaceShuttle era. In this way, jobs and the established infrastructure should be preserved. The moon rocket has since been nicknamed the “Frankenstein rocket” – in reference to the character of the same name who tries to create a human from body parts.
However, it was not the technology but the weather that thwarted the next two attempts to start. First Hurricane Ian, then Hurricane Nicole, messed up the schedule.
New rocket, new spaceship, new records
However, if it finally makes it to space, the Artemis-1 mission could break several records at once. The Orion spacecraft will launch into space atop the world’s most powerful rocket. With this “Orion” should fly further than any spaceship built for humans before. The capsule will travel a maximum of 450,000 kilometers from Earth during the mission, staying in space longer than any of its predecessors without docking with a space station.
Once on the moon, “Orion” should approach the celestial body at a distance of about 97 kilometers and then use its gravity. In this way, the spacecraft enters a declining orbit that takes around 64,000 kilometers past the Earth’s satellite. That distance would surpass the previous Apollo 13 record by 48,000 kilometers, making it the furthest distance a human-made spacecraft has traveled in space.
“Orion’s” return flight is also record-breaking: the spacecraft is said to return to earth faster and hotter than ever before. The target is a speed of almost 40,000 kilometers per hour and temperatures of up to 2800 degrees Celsius.
It is not yet known which astronauts will take part in the upcoming Artemis missions. However, it is time that more people get the opportunity to look at Earth from the moon and explore the celestial body, says ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst. “Understanding our cosmic environment will one day be vital for our species.”