NASA will soon be starting its Artemis programme, its bid to land people on the Moon for the first time since 1972.
The first of these missions, Artemis I, will be an uncrewed mission around the Moon to test out all the necessary hardware. It is currently scheduled for November 2021. Artemis II will be a repeat of Artemis I but this time with astronauts onboard. If all goes well with the previous missions, Artemis III will touch down on the Moon’s surface.
NASA’s plan is for Artemis III to take place in 2024, but this is unlikely to actually happen. A date in the late 2020s is more realistic.
The aim of the Artemis programme, which has been named after the twin sister of the Roman god Apollo, is to further scientists’ knowledge and understanding of Earth’s nearest neighbour, and indeed Earth itself by extension.
The Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s landed in mainly equatorial regions and lasted a maximum of three days. Artemis III, by comparison, is planned to land at the Moon’s South Pole. The two astronauts who touch down on the surface will stay there for a week.
Five key pieces of hardware will be needed to make the landing possible – here’s a summary of them.
1. Space Launch System
The Space Launch System (SLS) is the rocket that will get the Artemis missions into space.
If successful during Artemis I, it will be become the most powerful rocket ever launched, although NASA might be pipped to that record if SpaceX have their way with their Super Heavy booster. SLS will produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust at lift-off, compared to the 7.6 million produced by the Saturn V used during the Apollo programme.
2. orion crew module
The Orion crew module is where the astronauts will reside during their journeys to and from the Moon.
Although it may share some external visual similarities with the Apollo command module of the 1960s and 1970s, it has several key distinctive features.
The Apollo command module could hold three astronauts. Orion will hold four for missions to the Moon, and up to six if it is used for flights to the International Space Station in the future.
It can also support astronauts for up to 21 days if not docked to a space station. The longest Apollo mission, by comparison, lasted 14 days.
3. service module
Attached to the base of the Orion crew module will be the service module, built by the European Space Agency. It has four solar panels to provide power, an engine for propulsion, and also houses the life support equipment that will be necessary when astronauts fly onboard Orion from Artemis II onwards.
The Gateway is a space station planned to be put in place around the Moon. It will act as an outpost of sorts for astronauts and equipment heading for the Moon and, later on down the line, Mars.
It will be relatively small, roughly a sixth the size of the International Space Station.
Of the four astronauts who will travel to the Moon on each crewed Artemis mission, two will stay onboard the Gateway. The other two will board the Human Landing System (more on that in a second) to head down to the surface.
The first elements of the Gateway are currently scheduled to launch in 2024.
5. Human Landing System
The Human Landing System (HLS) is the spacecraft that will actually land the astronauts on the Moon.
Once docked to the Gateway, two astronauts will move over to the HLS and make their landing on the Moon’s surface.
When their stay is complete, they will make the ascent back to the Gateway, transfer over to Orion again with their colleagues, and head home.
In April 2021 the contract for building the HLS was awarded to SpaceX. The design is based on their existing Starship craft. The plan is for SpaceX to make an uncrewed test landing on the Moon first, before NASA commits to putting a crew in it.