Artemis 1 rocket

Nasa’s Artemis rocket lifts off for historic Moon mission

Image credit: Nasa

Nasa has launched its most powerful rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, US, in the first step of a long-term mission to return humans to the Moon.

After several failed attempts, Nasa’s ‘Space Launch System’ (SLS) rocket has launched from the agency's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, propelling the Orion spacecraft in the Moon's direction. 

The uncrewed mission is the first in the space agency's Artemis programme, which aims to take humans back to the Moon and establish a lunar colony in the Earth's only natural satellite. 

“We rise together, back to the Moon and beyond,” said Nasa’s official commentator as the 98-metre rocket took off in a cloud of smoke. 

The SLS is the most powerful rocket Nasa has ever built. In this crucial testing phase, it will fly further than any spacecraft built for humans: 40,000 miles past the far side of the Moon and 280,000 miles from Earth.

The megarocket’s 8.8 million pounds of thrust at launch is 13 per cent more than the Space Shuttle and 15 per cent greater than the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo missions. Each of the two boosters generates more thrust than 14 four-engine commercial airliners, according to Nasa. It’s also powered by four RS-25 engines, with the outbound trip to the Moon taking several days.

The lift-off followed two previous launch attempts in August and September this year that were aborted during the countdown due to a temperature problem in one of the engines, which was later attributed to a hydrogen leak

On Wednesday, November 16, the launch was finally successful.

Nasa flight director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson addressed her colleagues at the Kennedy Space Centre after the launch.

 “You are part of a first – it doesn’t come along very often, once in a career, maybe," she said. 

“We are all part of something incredibly special: the first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the Moon and on to Mars. What you have done today will inspire generations to come.”

Artemis 1 rocket launch concept

Artemis 1 rocket launch concept / Nasa

Image credit: Nasa

The SLS rocket is due to take the Orion capsule, powered by the Airbus-built European Service Module (ESM), into the Moon’s orbit, carrying a ‘Shaun the Sheep’ animated puppet.

At its closest, the capsule will be a mere 100km from the lunar surface and Orion 70,000km (45,000 miles) at its most distant. This will be the furthest from Earth any human-rated spacecraft has ever ventured.

The mission duration is 42 days, three hours and 20 minutes and in total the spacecraft will travel 1.3 million miles. It will also assess whether some infrastructure can be built on and around the Moon, allowing humans to survive on another planetary body.

Pending the mission's success, Artemis 2 will take a similar path to that of Artemis 1, only with humans aboard. In contrast, Artemis 3 is expected reach the Moon for the first time since Apollo 17 landed there in December 1972.

The mission has been scheduled for 2025 and will see the arrival of the first woman and person of colour in the Moon. It will also serve to build a base camp that can be used as a test bed for even more ambitious missions, starting with getting a human to Mars.

Artemis 1 rocket

Artemis 1 rocket /Nasa

Image credit: Nasa

Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said the launch team were “part of a great legacy”.

“This legacy is now taking us as we explore the heavens. It didn’t end with Apollo 17 – this time we’re going back, we’re going to learn a lot of what we have to, and then we’re going to Mars with humans,” he added. 

The UK is part of the Artemis programme, making contributions to the Lunar Gateway – a space station currently in development with the European Space Agency – working alongside the US, Europe, Canada and Japan. The nations have together developed the Artemis Accords, a set of principles to ensure a shared understanding of safe operations, use of space resourcesminimising space debris and sharing scientific data.

The capsule is due back on Earth in approximately three and a half weeks’ time, on December 11.

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