Artemis I, back to the moon

Within a few weeks, if there are no further postponements, Artemis I will start. NASA has communicated 3 launch windows: on August 29, September 2 and September 5. This is a very important mission: the first of Artemis program which will bring the United States and its allies (including Europe, with Italy) back to the moon.

However, Artemis is not only the continuation of the Apollo program (even if Artemis, not surprisingly, in Greek mythology is the sister of Apollo, son of Zeus). “With Artemis, we’re not just going back to the moon,” said Jeremy Parsons, deputy manager for the Artemis I Earth Exploration Systems Program at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. “Our final destination is Mars. We will go to explore parts of the Moon that we have never seen and we will learn to live in space. We want to understand how to use the lunar resources to create tools, energy, food. The ultimate goal is to go further, where we have never gone before ».

Half a century later. It is a moment that we have been waiting for almost fifty years. Exactly from December 19, 1972, when the Apollo 17 mission ended. A few days earlier, commander Eugene Cernan, starting from the lunar soil had said: “… We leave the Moon as we found it and, God willing, how we will find it again when we will return, with peace and hope for all humanity “. It was thought, within a few months. But, upon their return, Cernan and his companions discovered that Apollo 17 would be the last chapter of the project, and they were the last humans to walk on the Moon. The high costs and the Vietnam War had dulled the enthusiasm for space. The Apollo project ended quietly and without too many pleasantries.

But now the return to the Moon is near: a new generation of astronauts is about to set foot on it. But not with this first mission, which will happen unmanned and will serve for test the main components for a goal that in perspective will not be reduced to touch-and-escape trips as for the Apollo. The goal, on the moon, is to stay there.

However, the difficulties of creating a terrestrial colony in a waterless and atmosphereless environment are enormous; for this the space agencies have opted for a “puzzle” strategy. Each mission will insert a piece, and Artemis I is the first piece of this puzzle. It will last about three weeks and will allow you to field test some fundamental components: for example, the heat shield of the command module (the one that will contain the astronauts in subsequent missions). During the return to Earth, the shield will be subjected to a temperature of over two thousand degrees.

Three, two, one… GO! In general, for a mission to the Moon and to descend to its surface, three fundamental components are needed: a rocket (because you have to get to the Moon), a spacecraft (which hosts astronauts in the safest and most comfortable way possible) and a module landing, the equivalent of the famous Lem of the Apollo missions. In that case, the rocket was the Saturn V and the spacecraft was called the command module; for Artemis the rocket is called Space Launch System, or more simply Sls, and the Orion spacecraft, in honor of the Orion constellation.

The SLS, defined by NASA as “the most powerful rocket in the world”, is a 98-meter-high colossus whose development has cost, from 2011 to today, over 23 billion dollars. “SLS is a pachyderm,” says Elkin Norena, resident manager for SLS at Kennedy Space Center. “It will be the most powerful rocket ever and will have 50% more thrust than the Saturn V. At launch, it will be capable of producing nearly 4,000 tons of thrust. Seeing it take off will be an incredible sight ».

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The Space Launch System, the huge NASA launcher used by the Artemis program.
© Nasa / Focus

On launch day, six seconds after take-off, its four RS-25 main engines will start. And perhaps it may surprise you to know that these engines are recycled. They are the “leftovers” (modernized) of the Space Shuttle engines, the space shuttles that retired in 2011, and have flown the Shuttles several times. Their reuse is due both to the need to limit costs and because they have proved to be excellent. “They are very reliable. We have used this type of engine for 135 missions, and we know how it works, ”adds Norena. “Going into space is difficult. When you invent something new you have to test it a thousand times before sending it into orbit. If you have something reliable in your hands that you know can do for you, you don’t have to reinvent everything from scratch ». Once the countdown is over, the two side boosters, solid propellant auxiliary rockets, will also light up for about 20 seconds; some of their parts are also remnants of the Shuttle program.

The Orion spacecraft. Sixty seconds after launch, the SLS will already be 18 kilometers above the troposphere, and once in orbit the Orion capsule, located at its top, will detach. The Orion is made up of two main segments: the first is the service module, made in Europe, which serves for the propulsion and control of the spacecraft and to supply electricity (obtained thanks to solar panels). It is also the “hold” for storing water and air for astronauts. The second is the command module, where the crew will take place in future missions. It is only these two modules that will make the Earth-Moon journey, where the Orion will make some orbits close to the lunar surface (technically they are called flyby) and others wider. And after about six days she will resume her way home.

Once back, near the Earth, the service module will separate from the command module, which will enter the atmosphere at 40 thousand kilometers per hour, then open the parachute, slow down and land. Of the 98 meters of the SLS at the start, only the Orion command module, just over 3 meters high, will return to Earth, landing off San Diego, in the Pacific.

The Orion capsule. In the upper part there is the command module and below the service module. Italy also participated in its construction thanks to Asi and Leonardo (see box below).

The next steps. The Artemis program, after the first step we are about to witness, will be structured in several missions that should extend to 2030 and beyond.

The three already approved are Artemis I, Artemis II (originally scheduled for 2023 but postponed to 2024) and Artemis III, now scheduled no earlier than 2025. Artemis II will be the equivalent of Apollo 8, the first mission with a crew that it reached the moon but did not descend to its surface. Thus also the crew of Artemis II will make a short tour around our satellite, without landing on the moon.

After these general tests, NASA is aiming for the first moon landing in half a century with Artemis III, which will in effect be the version millennials Apollo 11: the crew will land on the moon for a week. Even if the third fundamental element for human missions, the lunar landing module, does not exist to this day. The private company SpaceX of Elon Musk should realize it, which won a tender launched by NASA by defeating, among others, a consortium led by Blue Origin, the company of the other tycoon Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. After an appeal by the latter, the assignment was confirmed last November to SpaceX, which is expected to build a version of its Starship spacecraft, currently under test.

The orbiting base. Artemis III will also mark the beginning of the construction of the Lunar Gateway, one of the most science fiction novelties of the entire project. The Gateway will be a port in orbit around our satellite where the spacecraft will be able to dock and take over. From there you can descend to the lunar surface and go back up. A spacecraft, probably the Starship, will act as an “elevator”. And once they land, the astronauts will use lunar jeeps to reach Artemis Base Camp, the permanent base located at the south pole.

All this, however, will come towards the end of the decade. Construction of the Gateway is expected to start no earlier than 2026, but this is also an optimistic forecast. The Trump administration in 2019 put pressure on NASA to program Artemis III in 2024, both to assert US supremacy over China, which at the time had just announced its intention to land on the Moon by 2030 (v. box alongside), and because so Trump, hoping to be re-elected, could see the man back on the moon by the end of his second term. But NASA has officially declared that Artemis III will not arrive before 2025.

First name Objective Duration Date

Artemis I

Unmanned Moon Flyby

3 weeks

September 2022

Artemis II

Flyby with crew

10 days

May 2024

Artemis III

Landing with crew (with at least one woman)

4 weeks

Not until 2025

Artemis IV

Sending a crew on the Gateway

4 weeks

March 2026

Artemis VX

Crews on the moon for longer and longer periods, building a moon base

To be defined

2027 – 2032

Artemide generation. If we think about how much the Apollo missions have influenced the generation that lived them, it is not difficult to guess that Artemis could have an even greater impact, thanks also to social media that will make the experience more immediate. It is no coincidence that NASA has coined the expression “Generation Artemis” to refer to the boys and girls who will grow up with the image of the new astronauts who will populate the Moon. “I have two daughters aged seven and nine,” concludes Jeremy Parsons, “and I love the idea that in a few years they can see astronauts land on the moon, knowing that in the future they could be among them. It makes me feel proud of what we are doing ». The Artemis Generation will be the generation of space engineers and astronauts, they will travel between the Earth and the Moon as we travel between Rome and New York and Orion will be their Red Arrow. And they will be the first human beings to be defined as “extraplanetary”.

Emma Gatti for Focus

An older version of this article was published in Focus, in January 2022.

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About Alex Marcell

He likes dogs, pizza and popcorn. Already a fanboy of Nintendo and Sony, but today throws anything. He has collaborated on sites and magazines such as GameBlast, Nintendo World, Hero and Portal Pop, but today is dedicated exclusively to Spark Chronicles.

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