Head over to CNN for live coverage from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida through to the launch Monday morning. Space reporters Kristen Fisher and Rachel Crane will give us a real-time report on the launch with a team of experts.
The unmanned Artemis I mission, including the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, is intended to take off on August 29 between 8:33 a.m. ET and 10:33 a.m. ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Although there is no human crew on board the mission, it is the first step in the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon and eventually land them on Mars.
The weather looks good to go. At the start of the launch period Monday, the chances of favorable weather rose to 80%, according to a US Space Force forecast at 6:45 a.m. EDT. However, towards the end of the launch period, the chances drop to 60% as the chance of scattered rain and storms increases.
The welcome news was announced Sunday, a day after the massive moon rocket suffered several lightning strikes while sitting on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday.
Teams worked through the night to assess the potential effects of the five events recorded by the lightning protection system towers at Launchpad 39B during a Saturday afternoon thunderstorm.
After determining that the strikes were likely low-volume, the team decided that no significant re-tests were needed and “everything looks really good,” said Jeff Spaulding, Artemis I first test manager at NASA.
If the rocket is unable to launch on Monday, the next possible launch will be on Friday, September 2 at 12:48 PM ET.
The Orion spacecraft will enter a distant retrograde orbit of the Moon and travel 40,000 miles beyond it, going further than any spacecraft intended to transport humans. The crew aboard Artemis II will ride on a similar path in 2024, and the first woman and next man on the moon are scheduled to reach the lunar south pole in late 2025 on the Artemis III mission.
Celebrity appearances such as Jack Black, Chris Evans and Keke Palmer, “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Josh Groban and Herbie Hancock, “America the Beautiful” by the Philadelphia Orchestra and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are also part of the programme.
Once the launch occurs, NASA will hold a post-launch briefing, and later in the day the agency will share the first views of Earth from the cameras aboard the Orion spacecraft.
Orion’s journey will take 42 days as it travels to the Moon, orbits it, and returns to Earth – traveling a total of 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km). The capsule will fall into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on October 10.
Here’s everything you can expect before, during and after the launch.
Countdown to launch
The countdown to the official launch began on August 27 at 10:23 AM ET.
Stations were called Saturday morning at the Kennedy Space Center, as well as for teams providing support from various centers around the country. That’s when all the teams associated with the mission arrived at their consoles and reported they were ready, and the two-day countdown began.
Over the weekend, engineers operate the Orion spacecraft, the temporary cooled thrust stage (the top of the rocket) and the core stage, charge the batteries and make final preparation for the engines.
Late Sunday night through early Monday morning, the launch team will hold a briefing to discuss weather conditions and determine whether they are “going” or “not going” to start refueling the rocket.
If everything looks OK, the team will begin fueling the rocket’s primary stage eight hours before launch. Five hours before, the upper stage will begin to refuel. Next, the team will feed and replenish any of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that dissipate during the refueling process.
About 50 minutes before launch, the final briefing for NASA’s Test Director will occur. The planned 30-minute countdown will begin approximately 40 minutes before launch.
The launch manager will poll the team to make sure that each station “goes off” 15 minutes before liftoff.
At 10 minutes and counting, things are on high gear as the spacecraft and rocket go through the final steps. Much of the action takes place in the last minute, with the ground launch sequencer sending the command to the rocket’s flight computer’s automated launch sequencer to take more than 30 seconds before launch.
In the last few seconds, the hydrogen will burn, and the four RS-25 engines will start, producing enhanced ignition and starting at T minus zero.
Journey to the moon
After liftoff, solid rocket boosters will separate from the spacecraft about two minutes into the flight and splash into the Atlantic Ocean, with other components also discarded soon after. The rocket’s primary stage will separate after about eight minutes and fall toward the Pacific Ocean, allowing the wings of Orion’s solar array to spread out.
The perigee-raising maneuver will occur about 12 minutes after launch, when the ICPS experiences a burn to raise Orion’s altitude so it does not re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Shortly thereafter, the lunar transient injection was burnt, when ICPS boosted Orion’s speed from 17,500 mph (28,163 kph) to 22,600 mph (36,371 kph) to escape Earth’s gravity and blast off to the Moon.
After this burn, ICPS will separate from Orion.
At about 4:30 p.m., Orion will make its first exit trajectory correction using the European Service Module, which supplies the spacecraft with power, propulsion, and thermal control. This maneuver will put Orion on the moon’s path.
In the next few days after launch, Orion will blast off to the moon, 60 miles (96 kilometers) away during its closest approach to the lunar surface on the sixth day of the flight — or September 3 if the launch happens as planned in August. 29. The service module will put Orion into a far retrograde orbit around the Moon on the 10th or 7th of September.
Orion will surpass the distance record of 248,654 miles (400,169 kilometers) – set by Apollo 13 in 1970 – on September 8 when it orbits the moon. The spacecraft will achieve its maximum distance from Earth of 280,000 miles (450,616 km) on September 23 when it ventures 40,000 miles (64,373 km) behind the moon.
This is 30,000 miles (48,280 km) away from the record for Apollo 13.
Orion will make its second closest approach to the lunar surface, 500 miles (804 kilometers), on October 3. The service module will experience a burn that will enable the moon’s gravity to launch Orion’s slingshot back on its way to Earth.
Before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, the service module will separate from Orion. The spacecraft will hit the top of Earth’s atmosphere and travel at 25,000 miles per hour (40,233 kilometers per hour), and its heat shield will experience temperatures of nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
The atmosphere will slow Orion to about 300 mph (482 kph), and a series of parachutes will slow it to less than 20 mph (32 kph) before dropping into the Pacific Ocean at 11:53 a.m.
Splashdown will be broadcast live from NASA’s website, gathering views from 17 cameras aboard the rescue ship and helicopters that will wait for Orion’s return.
The landing and recovery team will collect the Orion capsule, and the data collected by the spacecraft will determine the lessons learned before humans return to the moon.
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