It's been 50 years since humans last walked on the Moon. Now, NASA is preparing to return
NASA's Artemis missions aim to "land the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon", explore the lunar surface, and lay the groundwork for sending astronauts to Mars.
Find out more about this groundbreaking new era in space exploration.
The Artemis programme is a series of ongoing lunar missions run by NASA.
One Artemis mission has already been completed: in late 2022 Artemis 1, an uncrewed test flight, orbited and flew beyond the Moon.
The next missions are currently in preparation:
NASA's long-term goals are even more ambitious: using the technology and research developed during the Artemis flights, the space agency intends to launch a future crewed mission to Mars.
This 'Moon to Mars' plan involves building a new space station in lunar orbit and, eventually, establishing a habitable Moon base.
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Artemis is the mythological Greek goddess of the Moon – and twin sister of Apollo. The name is intended to link this programme with the Apollo missions that first landed humans on the Moon over 50 years ago.
The crewed spacecraft, meanwhile, is called Orion. Orion is the name of one of the most recognisable constellations in the sky. In Classical mythology, Orion is the hunting companion of Artemis.
Launch vehicles: Space Launch System (SLS); Commercial launch vehicles
Crew modules: Lunar Gateway, Orion, Human Landing System (HLS)
NASA is not simply aiming to repeat the feats of the Apollo missions with Artemis. Instead its goal is to go to the Moon 'and stay there'.
That means 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 the middle of the decade.
Key NASA mission objectives include:
There are four main components to the Artemis Moon missions. These include:
Equipped with life support systems and shuttle interfaces, Orion is the command module needed to transport the astronauts through space.
Gateway is a small space station that, once built, will orbit the Moon. It's designed to be a flexible platform for missions to the Moon and beyond.
The Orion module will dock with Gateway, and from there the astronauts will transfer into the lunar landing module.
Unlike the International Space Station (ISS), Gateway won't be permanently occupied, but will serve as a platform where astronauts can live and undertake research for short periods. It will also be able to continue scientific research even between human lunar missions.
International partners such as the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are working with NASA on the modules of Gateway.
Gateway modules currently in development are:
The Human Landing System will take cargo and humans from Gateway to the Moon's surface. NASA is working alongside commercial companies to develop both the Human Landing System (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 meant to be used for multiple missions.
SpaceX will provide the HLS for Artemis 3 and 4, with a specially-adapted lunar version of its Starship rocket. Before it can be used on a real mission and human crew are allowed on board, SpaceX must perform at least one demo showing it can land Starship safely on the lunar surface. When Starship has passed all the rigorous safety tests, it will be ready for use on a real mission.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, have been contracted to provide a HLS for Artemis 5. This lander will have the potential to increase the number of crew who can go down to the Moon, and allow them to stay for longer.
Tying all these elements together is the Space Launch System, the launcher that will carry astronauts beyond Earth's atmosphere and into space. This super heavy-lift rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty at 322ft, and is estimated to cost $800 million per launch. The SLS is one of the most powerful rockets in the world – 15% more powerful than the original Saturn V launcher that first took astronauts to the Moon.
While the journey to the Moon takes three days, reaching Mars is a far longer 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.
In 2020 NASA launched a recruitment drive for new astronauts who will be tasked with taking humans to the Moon and beyond, and the new 'Artemis Team' was revealed in December 2020.
However, NASA later announced that their entire astronaut corps, and not just the 18 selected ‘Artemis Team’, would be eligible to fly.
Artemis 2’s crew were announced on 3 April 2023. They are:
The crew who will be flying on Artemis 3, 4 and 5 are yet to be announced.
Formerly called Exploration Mission-1, this uncrewed mission took place in November-December 2022, and was an extensive test of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion module.
Artemis 1's journey took it 450,000 km to the Moon, where it orbited 130 km above the lunar surface, before continuing approximately 64,373 km beyond into deep space. After a mission length of 25.5 days, the module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near California on 11 December.
On board were a range of science and technology experiments that took place in deep space. These were designed to expand lunar knowledge, make further technological developments, and shed light on deep space radiation.
Also on board were three 'Moonikins': mannequins wearing the First-Generation Orion Crew Survival System spacesuit which the real astronauts will wear on Artemis 2 and 3. Sensors on the Moonikins provided crucial data on what human crew members may experience during flight.
Artemis 1 also carried two very special passengers in Shaun the Sheep and Snoopy, the latter of which you could see floating around inside the Orion capsule.
Following four cancelled launch attempts due to engine issues and tropical storms, Artemis 1 successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center at 1:47am EST (6:47am GMT) on 16 November 2022.
The Space Launch System generated 8.8 million pounds of thrust on liftoff, making it 1.3 million pounds more powerful than the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo missions.
Watch the moment Artemis 1 took off below.
On Day 6 of its mission (21 November), Orion reached and performed a flyby of the Moon, flying approximately 130 kilometres above its surface.
The spacecraft performed an engine burn to enter 'Distant Retrograde Lunar Orbit' on Day 10. This was called 'distant' as the craft flew at a high altitude from the lunar surface, and 'retrograde' because it flew around the Moon in the opposite direction the Moon travels around Earth.
On 26 November (Day 11), Orion broke the record for the farthest distance travelled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans into space and back. The record was previously held by Apollo 13, which travelled 400,171 km away. Orion reached a max distance of 432,210 km from Earth on Day 13, as part of its lunar orbit.
Another burn was performed on Day 16 to exit distant retrograde lunar orbit, sending Orion back towards the Moon, where it performed another flyby approximately 128 km above the Moon's surface. Orion then used the Moon’s gravity to slingshot back toward Earth, and landed in the Pacific Ocean on 11 December.
Artemis 1 successfully proved that the SLS, Orion and the systems on Earth for communications and recovery are suitable to fly real astronauts to the Moon and back.
Sensors were placed all over the Moonikin's body to collect valuable data about what the astronauts' bodies will be subjected to during the flight.
Snoopy is just about visible floating around the capsule wearing an identical orange spacesuit!
The spacecraft used the Moon's gravity to slingshot itself back to Earth.
The capsule was promptly picked up by search and rescue teams.
Artemis 2 will be a pioneering crewed spaceflight for the Artemis programme, taking humans farther than they've ever been in space.
After being launched on 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 on the Orion module and its capabilities, including its life support systems.
Artemis 2 is scheduled to launch in November 2024, however the exact date is yet to be confirmed.
The third Artemis mission will last 30 days, and is set to be the first human Moon landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Four astronauts will fly to the Moon on board Orion, where they will dock with Gateway in orbit around the Moon.
The Human Landing System will be designed by SpaceX and will be a lunar-adapted version of its reusable rocket Starship. Starship will take two astronauts down to the Moon's South Pole, a region previously unvisited by humans. The two astronauts selected will be the first woman and first person of colour to land on the Moon.
They will spend almost a week living in Starship and exploring the lunar surface, performing a variety of scientific studies including sampling water ice - first detected on the Moon in 1971.
Meanwhile, Orion and the remaining astronauts will complete one full orbit of the Moon, lasting 6.5 days, before being rejoined by their fellow crew from Starship.
Artemis 4 will deliver the International Habitation (I-Hab) module to Gateway, which will be followed by another crewed lunar landing.
Similarly to Artemis 3, two astronauts will go to the lunar surface on board Starship and spend a week doing moon walks, rover operations and science experiments. Artemis 4 astronauts will also collect samples, which they will bring back to Earth on board Orion.
As part of the Artemis 5 mission, another module of Gateway, ESPRIT, will be delivered. ESPRIT is the name for the European Space Agency's additions to the Artemis programme - the abbreviation stands for 'European System Providing Refueling Infrastructure and Telecommunication'.
Following this delivery, another lunar landing will take place with two more astronauts, who will do further surface science and collect more samples to take back to Earth.
NASA are also looking ahead to future missions and have already awarded contracts for boosters on rockets up to Artemis 13!
(Main image and graphics courtesy of NASA)