What is the Artemis Program?
The Artemis Program is NASA’s planned mission series that aims to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024. The program was announced in 2017 with the long term goals of establishing a sustainable presence in lunar orbit as well as exploration of the lunar south Polar Regions. The program also planned to open the door for private companies to establish a lunar economy. If the program is successful in returning to the Moon, it will be the first time humans have left Low Earth Orbit for decades.
The Artemis Program consists of three core missions: Artemis 1, 2 and 3. Surrounding these missions are multiple planned support missions that have been awarded to contractors. These support missions include the delivery of cargo and equipment to the lunar surface as well as deployment of unmanned spacecraft for exploration and experimentation.
The first of the core missions, Artemis 1 is an unmanned test flight for the program’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), as well as the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy rocket, During the mission, the spacecraft will enter Low Earth Orbit before performing a trans-lunar injection burn. This burn will set the spacecraft on its journey to the Moon, where upon arrival, it will enter orbit. Artemis 1 will remain in lunar orbit for 6 days before beginning its return journey to Earth.
The overall purpose of the Artemis 1 mission is to certify that both the Orion MPCV and the SLS are flight ready and able to safely carry a crew. At the time of writing, Artemis 1 is scheduled for launch as early as November 4, 2021.
With the hardware proven in the previous mission, Artemis 2 will take a crew of astronauts to the Moon. Launching aboard an SLS, the crew mission aims to reach the Moon and perform a fly-by. Once in Earth orbit, the spacecraft will orbit the planet twice, making multiple burns to accelerate the crew into an orbit that will reach the Moon. This will also be a free return trajectory, a type of orbit where a spacecraft is returned to its parent body, in this case the Earth, by the gravity of its target, the Moon. The Orion capsule will fly past the Moon at a distance of approximately 7500 km before returning to Earth.
Artemis 2 is planned to take 10 days to complete from lift-off to splash-down and is scheduled for launch no earlier than August 2023.
Artemis 3 is the flagship mission of the entire Artemis Program with the ambitious goal of returning humans to the surface of the Moon. The mission is unique from other missions as it will be the first lunar double launch. An SLS launched Orion capsule will take 4 astronauts from Low Earth Orbit to the surface of the Moon in a similar mission profile to Artemis 2. However, instead of flying past the Moon, the crew of Artemis 3 will enter orbit and perform a rendezvous manoeuvre with the other component of the mission, the descent vehicle.
NASA’s plan for a descent vehicle was to contract the design for one out to multiple space launch companies, selecting at most two to ferry astronauts to the lunar surface from lunar orbit. In April of 2021, SpaceX were selected to produce the lander, a modified version of Starship. SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System (Starship HLS) will be launched from Earth atop a Super Heavy booster. The Starship will autonomously fly to the Moon where it will rendezvous with the Orion crew module.
Two crew members will disembark the Orion module and descend to the Earth inside the Starship HLS. Following touchdown, the astronauts will stay on the Moon for about a week, performing up to 4 spacewalks, conducting experiments and collecting sample of lunar ice for analysis on Earth. The landing site of the Artemis 3 mission will have already been visited by multiple support spacecraft. These spacecraft will have pre-positioned equipment on the lunar surface for use of the Artemis 3 crew, including a lunar rover.
Following departure from the surface of the Moon, the crew of Artemis 3 will reunite before returning to Earth. Currently, the mission is scheduled for launch in October 2024 at the earliest.
Riley is an experienced astronomy guide who has been working within the astronomy community for several years. He is incredibly passionate about the night sky and is currently completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Science, Math and Education.
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