NASA plans first return mission to Moon in February 2022

NASA plans first return mission to Moon in February 2022
NASA’s Orion spacecraft secured atop the Space Launch System rocket. Credit: NASA

The United States space agency, NASA, has announced that it will be aiming to launch its first, uncrewed mission to the moon, Artemis 1, in February next year.

Initially, the mission was scheduled for November, however the real launch of the Artemis programme, which will eventually see the first woman ever going to the moon, will now take place four months later, the agency said on Friday.

Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager, said in a press conference that the launch window was expected to be from 12 to 27 February. If the mission is not ready on time, the next windows are 12-27 March and 8-23 April.

The Orion capsule was stacked on top of the almost 100-metre-high SLS rocket this week at the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida. “Completing stacking is a really important milestone,” Sarafin said. “It shows that we’re in the home stretch toward the mission.”

In March this year, the SLS underwent a static test of its engines, known as a “hot fire” test, in Mississippi, before it was transported to Florida, where the Orion capsule was assembled on top of it.

In early January 2022, the rocket will be transported to a launchpad for a “wet dress rehearsal” or fuelling test, during which its fuel tanks will be filled up and a mock countdown will be done. After that, the exact launch date will be announced.

In February of the same year, the unmanned test flight will be undertaken as NASA's new giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will propel the Orion spacecraft towards the Moon, where the capsule will orbit before returning to Earth.

If the first half of the February window is selected, the mission will last about six weeks. However, if it leaves during the second half, it will spend only four weeks in space, Sarafin explained.

It has not yet been confirmed whether the next stage of the mission, Artemis 2, had been affected by the delay in launching Artemis 1. This stage, planned for 2023, involves transporting a crew onboard the spacecraft. However, the astronauts will not land on the Moon.

It is only during Artemis 3, for which the initial target date was set in 2024, that the astronauts are scheduled to set foot on the Moon.

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