A rocket destined for the moon has arrived at its NASA launch pad, heralding a new era of revived exploration to the lunar surface and beyond.
The Artemis I spacecraft, which moved from the assembly building to the launch pad early Friday morning at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, will fly to the moon unmanned as early as June this year, if all goes to plan. Its sister spacecraft, Artemis II and III, will then make the trip with crews of astronauts.
A new era of space exploration
Artemis I is the first link in a chain that will connect us with our celestial satellite once more: it’ll be the first flight test of NASA’s deep-space exploration systems, made up of the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch Systems (SLS) rocket, and the ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center.
During its flagship flight, Artemis I will launch on the most powerful rocket ever created, and fly further than any spacecraft built for human flight has ever flown. It will travel more than 450,000 kilometres from Earth, thousands of km beyond the moon, over the course of a four-to-six week mission (longer than any ship carrying astronauts has ever done), before returning home.
“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager, in November last year. “It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.”
Artemis II will be the first crewed flight of the project, while Artemis III will actually land on the lunar surface. NASA says a woman and a person of colour will both be part of the Artemis III crew, an effort to address the persistent racial and gender imbalance in the astronaut corps. Of the 330 American astronauts to travel to space, just 14 have been African American, and only 10% of all astronauts who’ve been to space are women.
Having arrived at its launch pad, Artemis I will next undergo its final pre-flight test, known as the ‘wet dress rehearsal’. During the approximately two-day-long test, teams will start by activating the facilities for launch and beginning the iconic countdown sequence. Launch controllers will power-on different systems on the rocket, along with ground support equipment.
Then, a crew will load more than 2.64 million litres of cryogenic (super cold) propellants, including liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, into the rocket at the launch pad. They will practise every phase of the countdown, including weather briefings, pre-planned holds in the countdown, conditioning and replenishing the propellants and all the required checks.
They will even test what happens if they have to halt a launch just before take-off and drain all the propellants from the rocket – this is called a ‘scrub’, and it happens sometimes if controllers decide a launch needs to be postponed because of weather or technical issues.
Once the wet dress rehearsal is complete, the spacecraft will be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) 6 km down the road, where it will be prepped for its first actual flight.
While the Artemis missions are focused at this early stage on lunar exploration and moon-based science, the systems they use will in the long-term help them send a crewed mission to Mars. To do this, NASA will need to build a new space station in lunar orbit and, eventually, a habitable moon base, as part of their Moon to Mars project.
Australia is a key partner in the Artemis missions, and in 2020 we became one of the first signatories of the Artemis Accords, a set of agreements grounded in space law’s first and most important legal architecture, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
Australia’s space industry is burgeoning and punches well above its weight, particularly in South Australia, where the Australian Space Agency, the Australian Space Discovery Centre and Mission Control Centre, and the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) are based, at scientific and industry hub Lot Fourteen. It’s hoped that as the new era of space travel dawns, South Australia could become a hub of spaceflight.
Seven Sisters, a collaboration of Australian space companies and university research centres, plans to support the Artemis Moon to Mars missions and anchor Australia’s unique scientific expertise to the project. That’s because Australia is not only a font of smart technological innovations, but also a place of harsh environments that’s forced scientists and engineers to overcome complex working-condition problems – some of which are analogous to the problems humanity might face in space.