Humanity's return to the Moon is on the horizon: On Wednesday, NASA put its Moon-bound spacecraft through a critical new test. And with that, the countdown to NASA's Artemis mission officially began.
The space agency completed a booster test for the rocket designed to take humans to the Moon, a crucial step in ensuring not only astronauts' return to the Moon, but also maintaining a presence on the lunar surface as well.
NASA fired up the boosters for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in Promontory, Utah, on Wednesday, September 2.
The test lasted for a little over two minutes, which is the same amount of time that the five segment, flight-support booster powers up the SLS rocket during liftoff and flight for the upcoming mission. Although the test was brief, the booster produced more than 3 million pounds of thrust in those 120 seconds.
The data from the full-scale booster test will be evaluated by NASA and Northrop Grumman, the SLS booster lead contractor, so that they can assess the motor's performance and perhaps decide to incorporate new material into future boosters.
“The SLS flight support booster firing is a crucial part of sustaining missions to the Moon. NASA’s goal is to take what we learn living and working on the Moon and use it to send humans on the first missions to Mars," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
The booster test was the first to be completed after NASA and Northrop Grumman completed the design for the SLS rocket.
NASA and Northrop Grumman previously completed three development motor tests and two qualification motor tests. Meanwhile, the Flight Support Booster-1 test builds on the previous ones with the introduction of propellant ingredients from new suppliers for future flights to the Moon following the Artemis mission.
“NASA is simultaneously making progress on assembling and manufacturing the solid rocket boosters for the first three Artemis missions and looking ahead toward missions beyond the initial Moon landing,” John Honeycutt, the SLS Program Manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a statement.
“Today marks the first flight support booster test to confirm the rocket motor’s performance using potential new materials for Artemis IV and beyond," he added.
The Artemis I mission is scheduled to take off in April, 2021, but there will be no humans onboard this spacecraft. The purpose of Artemis I is to have an uncrewed flight test of the Orion spacecraft.
And instead of landing on the Moon, Artemis I will overshoot it by thousands of miles. During its trip, it will travel 280,000 miles from Earth and spend more time in space without docking at a space station than any other spacecraft of its kind has ever done before, NASA hopes — about three weeks.
Artemis II is designed to carry humans onboard the Orion spacecraft, but they will not land on the Moon either. Instead, the spacecraft is designed to orbit the Moon and return back to Earth.
Scheduled for takeoff no later than the year 2023, Artemis II will circle the Earth twice and periodically fire its engine in order to build up enough speed to propel it towards the Moon.
After it orbits the Moon, the spacecraft will use the Moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot itself back to Earth.
Following the success of Artemis I and II, Artemis III is set to take off in the year 2024, carrying humans all the way to the lunar surface.
“Landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon is just the beginning of NASA’s Artemis Program,” Bridenstine said.
The purpose of the Artemis program is not only to return humans to the Moon, but establish a presence on the orbiting rock and using the Moon to propel us to further destinations such as Mars.