The National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States, NASA, has just confirmed that the launch of the first mission that begins the path of the American return to the Moon will take off on 29 August from the Kennedy Space Center, on the coast of the US state of Florida.
This was announced by the Agency's own Administrator, Bill Nelson, at a briefing on 3 August. Called Artemis I, the mission is to travel a total of 2.1 million kilometres, reach lunar orbit and fly at a minimum altitude of 97 kilometres above the surface of the moon. But without carrying astronauts. It will be a real and complete unmanned test.
As this is the first comprehensive test of NASA's new deep space exploration systems, the Agency will conduct a thorough examination of all the equipment it has developed for the occasion, including the ground-based systems it has erected at Kennedy Space Center.
First, before risking the lives of any of its astronauts, it will check that the new launcher, called the Space Launch System (SLS), is a safe and reliable means of space transportation. Standing 100 metres tall and described by NASA as "the world's most powerful rocket", the SLS is the 2020s equivalent of the Saturn V rocket of the 1960s Apollo programme, which carried the first humans to the moon.
Artemis I will also evaluate the full capabilities of the new Orion capsule, which on future missions will carry astronauts to our natural satellite, bring them back after a 43-day round trip - barring emergencies - and splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, California. On the Artemis I mission, Orion will detach from the SLS rocket 2 hours and 5 minutes after liftoff and is scheduled to return to Earth on 10 October, provided the launch takes place on 29 August.
Orion should fly further than any other spacecraft has ever flown before. It will travel 450,000 kilometres from Earth and another 64,000 kilometres beyond the dark side of the moon, beating the record set by Apollo 13 in April 1970 by 48,000 kilometres. It means it will remain in space without docking to an orbital complex longer than any other spacecraft.
The NASA administrator sums up the project by saying that "we were in the Apollo generation and now we are in the new Artemis generation". And he made it clear that returning to the Moon is the great stepping stone to the Red Planet: "We're going to Mars and we're going to go back to the Moon, to work, live, survive and learn how to use lunar resources so we can build things in the future".
Although there are no astronauts on the first return mission to the moon in the 21st century, there are three non-human passengers, who will wear the so-called Orion crew survival system. Their role is to test the habitability conditions of the Orion capsule and, through its sensors, to collect data useful for future astronaut missions.
In the mission leader's seat will be the mannequin leader, named Commander Moonikin Campos in a public competition organised by NASA. It has sensors in the headrest and behind the seat to record accelerations and vibrations, five accelerometers and two radiation sensors.
Commander Campos will be accompanied by Helga and Zohar, two mannequin torsos, made from materials that mimic human bones, soft tissues and organs of an adult woman. An experiment of NASA, the German Aerospace Center and the Israel Space Agency, they are equipped with more than 5,600 passive sensors and 34 active detectors to measure their exposure to solar radiation.
Zohar will wear a radiation protection waistcoat (AstroRad), which will not be worn by Helga. The study aims to obtain valuable data on the radiation levels experienced by astronauts on lunar missions and the benefits of wearing protective waistcoats to work in critical activities despite a solar storm. The three dummies are accompanied by a number of different tests. Among the biological tests is one to analyse the impact of radiation on the nutritional value of seeds.
What are the main objectives of Artemis I? Firstly, to prove the capabilities of the SLS launcher. But it is just as important to demonstrate that the Orion capsule is capable of returning to Earth, entering the atmosphere and braking from 40,000 km/h to 480 km/h.
But above all, it must be validated that Orion's heat shield can withstand temperatures in the order of 2,800 degrees Celsius, which is essential to recover the spacecraft and save the lives of the astronauts who will travel inside it on subsequent missions. This is a temperature that no aerodynamic or aerothermal test facility has been able to recreate on Earth.
Artemis I will be used to deploy 13 tiny science and technology satellites, each the size of a large shoebox and weighing about 11 kilos. Seven belong to US universities, institutes and large companies, two to universities in Japan and one to Italy's space agency.
Six missions are confirmed in the Artemis programme and the total cost is around $10 billion. Artemis I will be followed by Artemis II, which is currently scheduled to take off in May 2024. It will be the first manned mission, although the four astronauts on board will not land on the moon. It will be followed in 2025 by Artemis III, which will also have four astronauts, two of whom will reach the surface of the Moon, one of them the first woman to set foot on our natural satellite.