NASA's Artemis mission aims to "land the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon" by 2025. 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 first astronaut of colour on the Moon's South Pole. 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 technology and research developed during the Artemis spaceflights, 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 crewed spacecraft currently under development meanwhile is called Orion. Orion is one of the most recognisable constellations in the sky, while 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)
- Artemis 1: no sooner than May 2022 (TBC)
- Artemis 2: 2024 (TBC)
- Artemis 3: 2025
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 the middle of the decade.
Key NASA mission objectives include:
- Equality: a chief aim for NASA is to land the first woman and first person of colour 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 retrieve 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.
Has the Artemis launch been delayed?
NASA's initial stated goal was to reach the Moon by 2024. The agency confirmed in November 2021 however that this date would be pushed back to no sooner than 2025.
Even this date is far from certain, with NASA Inspector General Paul Martin stating that the crewed lunar landing will likely slip to 2026 at the earliest.
The landing is the third in a multi-year mission beginning with Artemis I, an uncrewed flight round the Moon. Each of these missions have ambitious timelines of their own.
How will NASA get back to the Moon?
There are four main phases of 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.
The Lunar Gateway is a small space station orbiting the Moon, designed to be a flexible platform for missions to the Moon and beyond.
The Orion module will dock with Gateway, and from here the astronauts will transfer into the lunar landing module.
Unlike the International Space Station (ISS), the Lunar 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 are working with NASA on the design for the Lunar Gateway.
Moon Landing Module
The lunar landing vehicles will take cargo and humans from the Lunar Gateway to the Moon's surface. NASA is 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 March 2022, the rocket and spacecraft for Artemis I was moved to the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center.
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.
NASA Artemis mission timeline
Formerly called Exploration Mission-1, this uncrewed mission is an extensive test of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion module.
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.
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.
The third mission to the Moon is set to be the first Moon landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.
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 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. 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.
Could I become a NASA astronaut?
In 2020 NASA launched a recruitment drive for new astronauts who will be tasked with taking humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Each candidate had to be a US citizen and have at least a Master's degree in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering or maths). The deadline for the next intake closed on 31 March 2020, and the new 'Artemis Team' was revealed in December.
You can find out more about the original application process and NASA's astronaut requirements here.
(Main image and graphics courtesy of NASA)