When humans first reached the moon in December 1968, aboard Apollo 8, it was an incredible moment for humanity: a powerful illustration of what science and curiosity could achieve. Less than a year later, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would step onto its surface: the first people to walk on the moon.
Between Apollo 8 in December 1968 and Apollo 17 in December 1972, twenty-four astronauts have been to the moon, and twelve of those people have walked on it. We haven’t been back since, though. Every human who’s travelled to the moon did so in the span of those four years.
Now, half a century after the last manned mission to the moon, NASA is hoping to return there with the Artemis programme, which is planned to kick off tomorrow with the launch of Artemis I. Artemis I’s goal is to reach the moon, orbit it for six days and then return to Earth, testing the capabilities of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft.
Orion is certified as human-rated by NASA, meaning it meets NASA’s standards for being able to carry humans safely. Although it doesn’t have a human crew on this occasion, it’s hoped that the Artemis I mission will demonstrate we’re ready to send humans to the moon again.
Although the Artemis programme is led by the American space agency NASA, it also relies on the support of space agencies from Europe (ESA), Japan (JAXA) and Canada (CSA).
For example, ESA has contributed the European Service Module to the Orion spacecraft being used on Artemis missions. This module provides essentials such as oxygen, water, electricity and heating.
International cooperation is a recurring theme in space; we can also see it in the International Space Station. Ultimately, broadening the horizons of our universe is something that benefits all of humanity. It’s no surprise that it can bring nations together.
Artemis I is currently scheduled for launch at 6.04 am GMT on 16 November 2022. This time wasn’t chosen at random; it had to be during a suitable launch window. But what is a launch window?
Like other satellites, the moon is constantly moving along its orbital path. This means that getting to the moon isn’t just a matter of pointing a rocket at it and pressing the launch button. By the time the rocket reaches the moon’s altitude, the moon will be somewhere else.
Because of this, it’s important to plan your launch so your rocket and its intended destination (the moon, in this case) will reach the same place at the same time. This is only possible at certain times, which will depend on factors like the location you’re launching from and the orbit of the satellite you’re trying to reach.
This satellite won’t necessarily be the moon; you’ll also need to consider launch windows if, for example, you’re sending supplies to the International Space Station or trying to visit another planet in the solar system. If you want to send a satellite into a particular orbital path, you might also be able to save fuel if you calculate the best time to launch it, even if you’re not aiming to meet another satellite.
In other words, the launch window is the period of time during which you’ll have to launch your spacecraft if you want it to reach its destination, particularly if that destination is a moving object. If the launch is delayed and you miss the window, you’ll have to wait until another launch window comes around. This has happened several times with Artemis I, which was originally scheduled to be launched on 29 August.
Artemis I has no humans on board; its crew instead consists of mannequins and small toys, which we’re planning to take a closer look at in a future article. If Artemis I goes well, though, we could be seeing crewed moon missions within the next couple of years.
Artemis II is currently planned to launch in 2024, and will be the first crewed moon mission since Apollo 17. It’s expected to carry its crew around the moon and return to Earth.
Artemis III is scheduled for 2025, and it’s hoped that this mission will let humans stand on the moon for the first time in over fifty years.
We could end up going even further afield. Space agencies are already looking beyond the moon, at the prospect of sending the first crewed mission to Mars. If all goes as planned, humans could reach Mars as soon as the 2030s. We’re looking forward to seeing what we can learn from our solar system neighbour.
Cover image: NASA/Cory Huston
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