A view of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, NASA’s next-generation lunar rocket. Orion Crew Capsule is placed on top. Standing on Launch Pad 39B in preparation for the unmanned Artemis 1 mission in Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA. 28, 2022 Reuters/Joe Skipper

Cape Canaveral, Fla.: NASA’s gigantic next-generation rocket ship is ready for its long-awaited first launch on Monday. Unmanned, she made her six-week orbital test flight around the moon, marking her first mission as the successor to the space agency’s Artemis program. to Apollo.

The 32-story, two-stage Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and its Orion Crew capsule were scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, during a two-hour launch window at 8:00. 33:00 EDT (1233 GMT).

SLS-Orion’s maiden voyage, a mission named Artemis I, put the £5.75 million craft on a rigorous demonstration flight before NASA deemed it reliable enough to carry astronauts. , intended to push its design limits.

Touted as the world’s most powerful and complex rocket, the SLS represents the largest new vertical launch system built by the US Space Agency since the Saturn V flew in the Apollo lunar missions of the 1960s and 70s.

The spacecraft slowly moved to historic Launch Pad 39B earlier this month after weeks of final preparations and ground testing. Last week, NASA officials concluded a flight readiness review by declaring all systems “to be launched.”

One of the issues NASA officials cited last week as a potential show-stopper for Monday’s launch was signs during the rocket’s refueling that the newly repaired hydrogen line fittings couldn’t hold.

NASA has set September 2nd and September 5th as backup launch dates if the countdown clock stops for any reason.

Barring any last minute technical issues or bad weather, the Monday countdown should end with the rocket’s four main R-25 engines and two solid rocket boosters igniting to produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust. is. That’s about 15% more thrust than the Saturn V. , streaking the spacecraft into the sky.

About 90 minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage pushed Orion out of Earth’s orbit, taking it for a 42-day flight to within 60 miles of the moon’s surface before returning to the moon’s surface 40,000 miles (64,374 km) away. increase. Earth. The capsule is scheduled to land in the Pacific Ocean on October 10th.

Although it has no humans on board, Orion has three simulated crew members (one male and two female mannequins) fitted with sensors to measure radiation levels and other stresses experienced by real astronauts. ) will board.

The primary objective of this mission was to test the durability of the heat shield during re-entry as Orion returned from lunar orbit and collided with the Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour (39,429 km), or 32 times the speed of sound. is to test Faster than a typical reentry of an astronaut capsule returning from low earth orbit.

“That’s the number one priority we have to accomplish,” said lead flight director Rick Lovelord, as temperatures outside the capsule are expected to rise to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) on re-entry. “That’s what keeps the capsule together and saves astronauts,” he said of demonstrating the heat shield’s ability to withstand friction.

back to the moon

NASA’s Artemis program, named after the goddesses who were twin sisters of Apollo in ancient Greek mythology, could bring astronauts back to the moon as early as 2025, and an even more ambitious future voyage. We aim to establish a long-term lunar colony as a stepping stone to Send humans to Mars.

After more than a decade of development with years of delays and billions of dollars in budget overruns, the SLS-Orion spacecraft has so far cost NASA at least $37 billion, including design, construction, testing, and ground equipment. It cost us dollars.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has defended the Artemis program as a boon to space exploration and as an “economic engine,” noting, for example, that it generated $14 billion in commerce and supported 70,000 U.S. jobs in 2019 alone. increase.

Among the biggest financial beneficiaries of the program are major SLS and Orion Tier 1 contractors Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp.

During the six manned Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, 12 astronauts walked on the moon.

If successful, Artemis I will pave the way for the first manned SLS-Orion mission, named Artemis II, as early as 2024, followed by Artemis III’s journey over a year later. to the moon.

Artemis III is much more advanced or complex, integrating SLS-Orion with a series of spacecraft built and flown by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s launch company.

They include SpaceX’s own rugged Starship launch and lunar landing vehicle, which is still in development, and several components that have yet to be built (orbital fuel depots and the spacetankers that fill them). Even the new moonwalking suit hasn’t been designed yet.

Last year, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General said the first Artemis III moon landing was likely two to three years behind NASA’s late 2025 target date.

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