Artemis Program: what you need to know about NASA’s Moon mission

NASA's Artemis mission aims to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024. But how is it planning to get there? Find out more about the new era in space exploration. 

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What Is NASA's Artemis Program? 

Artemis is an ongoing space mission run by NASA with the goal of landing the first female astronaut and next male astronaut on the Moon's South Pole by 2024. It is the US space agency's first crewed Moon mission since Apollo 17 in 1972. 

The Artemis space missions are focussed on lunar exploration, but NASA's long term goals are event more ambitious. Using the capabilities, technology and research developed during the Artemis spaceflights and landings, NASA intends to launch a future crewed mission to Mars. This ambitious NASA 'Moon to Mars' plan involves building a new space station in lunar orbit and, eventually, a habitable Moon base.

Why is the programme called Artemis?

Artemis is the mythological Greek goddess of the Moon and twin sister of Apollo. The link with the mission which first launched humans to the Moon 50 years ago therefore is clear.

The name 'Artemis' is doubly significant however, as one of NASA's mission objectives is to land the first woman on the Moon.

The crewed spacecraft currently under development meanwhile is called Orion, one of the most recognisable constellations in the sky and the mythological hunting companion of Artemis.

Who were the first women in space?

Artemis mission facts

Duration: 2017–present

Launch vehicles: Space Launch System (SLS); Commercial launch vehicles

Crew modules: Lunar Gateway, Orion, Human landing system (HLS)

Launch dates:

  • Artemis 1: November 2020-early 2021 (TBC)
  • Artemis 2: 2022-2023 (TBC)
  • Artemis 3: 2024

Find out more about space missions launching in 2020

Why is NASA going back to the Moon?

NASA is not simply aiming to repeat the feats of the Apollo missions with Artemis, but rather to go to the Moon 'and stay there'. That means investigating the possibility of establishing bases both in lunar orbit and on the Moon's surface, although the primary goal for now still involves returning humans to the Moon by 2024.

Key NASA mission objectives include:

  • Equality: a chief aim for NASA is to land the first woman and next man on the lunar surface.
  • Technology: from rockets to spacesuits, the technologies currently being developed are designed to pave the way for future deep-space missions.
  • Partnerships: the Artemis programme is one of NASA's first large-scale collaborations with commercial companies, such as Blue Origin, SpaceX and Boeing.
  • Long-term presence: where the Apollo 17 crew spent three days on the lunar surface, Artemis aims to establish a base to extend the trips to weeks and possibly months.
  • Knowledge: as more is known about the Moon compared with 50 years ago (and technologies have greatly advanced), NASA claims that this next series of missions will be able to retreive samples more strategically than during the Apollo era.
  • Resources: the discovery of water on the Moon and potential deposits of rare minerals hold promise for both scientific and economic exploration and exploitation.

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How will NASA get back to the Moon? 

There are four main phases of the Artemis Moon missions currently in development. Each section is needed to make a crewed Moon landing by 2024. These include: 

Orion spacecraft

Orion's planned crew, command and service modules.
Orion's planned crew, command and service modules. Source: NASA (2019)

Equipped with life support systems and shuttle interfaces, Orion is the command module needed to transport the astronauts through space.

In February 2020, the module began its testing, with NASA subjecting it to the extreme temperatures and harsh environment it will experience in space.

Lunar Gateway

The Lunar Gateway is a small space station orbiting the Moon that is designed to dock with the Orion module and serve as the astronauts' base when exploring the lunar surface.

Unlike the International Space Station (ISS), it won't be permanently occupied but will serve as a platform where astronauts can live and undertake research for short periods. International partners such as the European Space Agency are working with NASA on the design for the Lunar Gateway, with the aim of launching the first parts of the structure aboard a commercial rocket in 2022.

Moon Landing Module

The lunar landing vehicles will take cargo and humans from the Lunar Gateway to the Moon's surface. NASA is currently working alongside commercial companies to develop both a human landing system (known as HLS) and a series of other vehicles for robotics and cargo.

Where Apollo's Lunar Module was designed to be used for one return journey to the Moon's surface, the landing systems for the Artemis missions are set to be used for multiple missions.

Space Launch System (SLS)

Tying together all these elements is the launcher that will carry them beyond Earth's atmosphere and into space. This super heavy-lift rocket can carry almost 180,000 kg and will cost over $800 million per launch. When complete, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket in the world, rivalling the original Saturn V launcher that first took astronauts to the Moon.

The launcher has been in development at NASA for most of the last decade, enduring multiple delays and rising costs. In January 2020, NASA rolled out the core stage for the SLS rocket in preparation for testing ahead of the first Artemis launch.

Will going to the Moon help humans land on Mars?

While the journey to the Moon takes three days, reaching Mars is a far lengthier and more complicated goal. NASA sees Artemis as laying the foundation for both international space agencies and private companies to build a lunar settlement and economy, and from there eventually send humans to Mars.

What does the future of space travel look like? Explore more here

What is Nasa's budget for Artemis?

US president Donald Trump has requested a significant boost in NASA budgets in order to fund the Artemis missions. The new 2021 proposed budget is $25.2 billion, an increase of 12% on the existing plan. If agreed to, it will be the biggest funding boost for NASA in decades, with $12.3 billion set to be spend on the Artemis missions. However, the budget requires approval from Congress before it can be confirmed.

NASA Artemis mission timeline

Artemis 1

Formerly called Exploration Mission-1, this uncrewed mission is an extensive test of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion module.

The mission was originally scheduled for 2020, although some reports are now suggesting the mission will be pushed back to April 2021. The SLS will take off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, and once in space the Orion module will detach and travel to the Moon. Its orbit will take it 62 miles above the lunar surface before it continues 40,000 miles beyond the Moon. After a travel time of 20 to 25 days, the module will splash down in the Pacific Ocean near California.

Artemis I flight path from NASA (2019)
Artemis I projected flightpath | Source: NASA (2019)
 

Artemis 2

Planned for launch in late 2022, this will be a pioneering crewed spaceflight for the Artemis Program, taking humans further than they've ever been in space.

After being launched into space by the SLS rocket, the four-person crew will fly the Orion module 8889 km beyond the Moon, complete a lunar flyby and return to Earth. The mission will take between eight to ten days and collect valuable flight test data.

Artemis II flightpath
Artemis II projected flightpath | Source: NASA (2019)

Artemis 3

The third mission to the Moon is set to be the first Moon landing since Apollo 17 in 1972, and aims to put the first woman astronaut on the Moon.

Building on the Artemis 2 mission, four astronauts aboard the Orion module will dock with the Lunar Gateway and remain in space for 30 days. The human landing system will then take two astronauts down to the Moon's South Pole, a region previously unvisited by humans. The astronauts are expected to spend a week exploring the surface and perform a variety of scientific studies, including sampling water ice - first detected on the Moon in 1971.

Artemis III flightpath
Artemis III projected flightpath | Source: NASA (2019)

Artemis 4,5,6 and more?

NASA are currently focusing their attentions on Artemis missions 1 to 3. If these prove successful, NASA has ambitions for further crewed missions on an annual basis through to 2030. One expectation is for future astronauts to begin establishing a base on the surface of the Moon, with a view to eventually using the satellite as a staging post on the journey to Mars.

What are the challenges to Artemis?

NASA have set tight time constraints in reaching the Moon by 2024 and so the challenges are steep. In January 2020, NASA faced budgetary disputes in US Congress that may see the date of a lunar landing postponed to 2028

Money isn’t the only difficulty to the lunar programme. Several of the private companies tasked with designing and manufacturing the crew-carrying spacecraft are facing technological delays, and the US government has identified schedule problems and cost overruns with the SLS rocket development.

However, NASA is currently still aiming for the 2024 deadline.

Could I become a NASA astronaut?

NASA is currently recruiting for new 'Artemis Generation' astronauts who will be tasked with taking humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond. However, there are strict guidelines to become a NASA astronaut. Each candidate must be a US citizen and at least a Master's degree in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering or maths). The deadline for the next intake closes on 31 March 2020, and you can find out more about the application process here.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said, 'America is closer than any other time in history since the Apollo program to returning astronauts to the Moon. We will send the first woman and next man to the lunar South Pole by 2024, and we need more astronauts to follow suit on the Moon, and then Mars.'

Bridenstine said that NASA was looking for 'talented men and women from diverse backgrounds and every walk of life to join us in this new era of human exploration that begins with the Artemis program to the Moon. If you have always dreamed of being an astronaut, apply now.'

(Main image and graphics courtesy of NASA)