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NASA returning to the Moon with mega-rocket launch

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CAPE CANAVERAL: Third time's the charm? After two failed attempts, NASA plans to launch its new mega Moon rocket early on Wednesday from Florida, less than a week after the massive machine withstood a hurricane.

"Our time is coming. And we hope that that is on Wednesday," said Mike Sarafin, the manager of the much-delayed Artemis 1 mission, at NASA headquarters.

The Artemis 1 mission, a test flight without astronauts, represents the first step in the US space agency's plan to build a lasting presence on the Moon and take lessons from there to prepare for a future voyage to Mars.

Named after the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, the new space program comes 50 years after humans last set foot on lunar soil. The first launch of the Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful ever designed by NASA, is set for Wednesday at 1:04 am local time (0604 GMT), with a possible launch window of two hours.

The countdown has already begun at the storied Kennedy Space Center, where the orange and white behemoth awaits its maiden flight.

The takeoff is scheduled less than a week after the passage of Hurricane Nicole, which the rocket endured outside on its launch pad.

For now, officials are evaluating the risk associated with hurricane damage to a thin strip of caulk-like material called RTV, which encircles the Orion crew capsule atop the rocket, and makes it more aerodynamic.

Teams are looking at whether the RTV could shake loose during launch and pose problems. Two backup dates are possible if needed, on November 19 and 25.

Far side of Moon

The weather promises to be mild, with a 90 per cent chance of favourable conditions during the launch window. At the end of September, the rocket had to be wheeled back to its assembly building to be sheltered from another hurricane, Ian.

Before these weather setbacks, two launch attempts had to be cancelled for technical reasons.


The first failure was related to a faulty sensor, and the second to a fuel leak when filling the rocket's tanks. It runs on ultra-cold, ultra-volatile liquid oxygen and hydrogen. NASA has since replaced a seal and modified its procedures to avoid thermal shock as much as possible.

Tank-filling is now due to begin Tuesday afternoon. About 100,000 people are expected on the coast to watch the launch, with the rocket promising to light up the night sky. The Orion capsule will be lifted by two boosters and four powerful engines under the core stage, which will detach after only a few minutes.

After a final push from the upper stage, the capsule will be well on its way, taking several days to reach its destination. Rather than landing on the Moon, it will assume a distant orbit, venturing 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond the far side -- further than any other habitable spacecraft so far.

Finally, Orion will embark on the return leg of its journey. When passing through the atmosphere, the capsule's heat shield will need to withstand a temperature half as hot as the Sun's surface.

If takeoff happens Wednesday, the mission would last 25 and a half days in all, with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.

NASA is banking on a successful mission after developing the SLS rocket for more than a decade. It will have invested more than USD 90 billion in its new lunar program by the end of 2025, according to a public audit.

Artemis 2 will be almost a replay of the first mission, albeit with astronauts, in 2024. Boots on the ground should happen during Artemis 3, no sooner than 2025, with the crew set to include the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon.

Hence an overview of the Artemis program:

Artemis 1: test flight 
Artemis 1 is a test flight of the 322-foot (98-meter) Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew capsule that sits on top.

Blastoff is scheduled for 1:04 am (0604 GMT) on Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with a two hour launch window.

Mannequins equipped with sensors will take the place of crew members on the flight, recording vibration, acceleration and radiation levels.

Orion will orbit the Moon before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

Artemis 2: first crew
Planned for 2024, Artemis 2 will be a crewed flight that will orbit the Moon but not land on the surface, similar to what Apollo 8 did.

The four members of the crew will be named before the end of the year. A Canadian is expected to be among them.

Artemis 3: Moon landing
The third Artemis mission will be the first to put astronauts on the Moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972.

NASA, for the first time, will land a crewed spacecraft on the southern pole of the Moon, where water in the form of ice has been detected.

Previous Moon landings took place near the equator.

Artemis 3 is scheduled for 2025 but may not take place until 2026 at the earliest, according to an independent audit of the program.

Starting with Artemis 3, NASA plans to launch crewed missions about once a year.

SpaceX Moon lander
NASA has selected Elon Musk's SpaceX to build the Moon lander for Artemis 3.

SpaceX's Starship, which is still under development, will serve as a shuttle from the Orion crew capsule to the lunar surface and back.

Gateway space station
The Artemis program also calls for the construction of a space station called Gateway that will orbit the Moon.

The launch of the first two elements -- the living quarters module and power and propulsion system -- is planned for late 2024 at the earliest by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Orion crews would be responsible for assembly of Gateway.

Astronauts would spend between 30 to 60 days in Gateway and would eventually have access to a lander that would allow them to travel to the Moon and back.

Gateway would also serve as a stopping point for any future trip to Mars.

Destination Mars
The ultimate objective of the Artemis program is what NASA calls the "next giant leap -- human exploration of Mars."

NASA will use knowledge gained from Artemis about next generation spacesuits, vehicles, propulsion, resupply and other areas to prepare for a trip to Mars.

The goal is to learn how to maintain a human presence in deep space for a long period.

Creating a "base camp" on the Moon is part of the plan with astronauts staying on the lunar surface for up to two months.

While a trip to the Moon takes just a few days, a voyage to Mars would take a minimum of several months. (THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS)

13 Days ago