Everything you need to know about the first three missions that will take us back to the Moon In recent years, NASA’s Artemis program has made increasing progress. Initially conceived as a “sister” to the Apollo program, Artemis will, in its most fundamental aspects, replicate the sequence of missions that put humans on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s. If Artemis II successfully executes the return flight from lunar orbit, NASA could launch shortly thereafter – perhaps as early as 2025 – Artemis III, which envisions the lunar landing (although the Artemis III mission could be postponed if the project continues to suffer schedule delays and budget overruns). As planned, Artemis will use NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket and Orion space capsule to carry astronauts into lunar orbit. Later, with Artemis III, Orion will connect to a vehicle designed and built by a private company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, that will ferry the crew to the surface, perhaps to a location near the Moon’s icy south pole. But the Artemis program is ambitious on multiple fronts. If fully realized, the project will include the construction of a space outpost orbiting the Moon called the Gateway. This small station could be used as a connection point for astronauts going to and from the lunar surface. In the future, it could also serve as support for missions targeting destinations farther out in the solar system. NASA plans to work with international partners to establish a long-term presence on the Moon and hopes that its foreign partners will agree to a set of principles laid out in a document called the Artemis Agreements. These include a commitment to use the Moon for peaceful purposes, cooperate in emergencies, share scientific knowledge and data, and preserve sites of historical interest such as the spot where Apollo 11 landed. But let’s take a closer look at how the program will develop. The Artemis program, named after the mythological Greek goddess of the Moon who was also the twin sister of Apollo, is basically the first, real project that aims to bring astronauts on lunar soil and especially to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon. All this seems almost science fiction, but in reality it is more than feasible and the program, despite technical and especially political controversies, seems to have recovered a lot of ground. It is also the first project to involve every possible aerospace entity, including private and commercial ones. All this has the purpose not only to “conquer” the Moon permanently, but to open the way to the Martian missions. Getting to Mars is very complex for many factors, so to perform a series of “round-trip” missions between our planet and its satellite in about 10 years – or a little more – is a great way to train for the great challenge of the Red Planet. The Artemis program will be developed over a decade, and the first 3-4 years will be characterized by missions that we can define as “preliminary”: the first flights will be in fact unmanned and will serve mainly to test the various components, new rockets, and new technologies. The Apollo program required three unmanned missions (Apollo 4, 5, and 6) and four other manned missions without lunar landing (Apollo 7, 8, 9, and 10), in order to check all the systems and especially to familiarize the astronauts with the rendezvous maneuvers in orbit. Before starting to describe the various phases in more detail I would like to draw your attention to the logo designed by NASA to represent the program. A graphic idea that condenses the roots of the Apollo era with the future of Martian exploration. Using an “A” as the primary visual and a trajectory from Earth to the Moon, we honor all that the Apollo program achieved. However, through Artemis, we will forge our own path, pursue lunar exploration like never before, and pave the way. As the “torch bringer,” literally and figuratively, Artemis will light our way to Mars. The A symbolizes an arrowhead from Artemis’ quiver and represents launch. The tip of the A of Artemis points beyond the Moon and signifies that our efforts at the Moon are not the conclusion, but rather the preparation for all that lies beyond. The crescent of the Earth at the bottom shows missions from humanity’s perspective. From Earth, we go. Back to Earth all that we learn and develop will return. This crescent also visualizes Artemis’ bow as the source from which all energy and effort is sent. The trajectory moves from left to right through the crossbar of the “A” opposite that of Apollo. Thus highlighting the distinct differences in our return to the Moon. The trajectory is red to symbolize our path to Mars. The first mission: Artemis 1 Artemis 1, formally called Exploration Mission -1, represents the official start of the program missions. Currently, it is still scheduled to start at the end of 2021, but it seems that even this date may be delayed, motivated by the Covid-19 emergency, but actually due to the still uncertain results of the Green Run test of the Space Launch System. The launch could thus slip until the spring of 2022. Besides representing the beginning of the program, Artemis 1 will also be the first flight for both the most powerful launcher ever built so far and for the Orion capsule. This first launch will primarily serve to demonstrate the launcher’s ability to get to and from the Moon safely, while also releasing small CubeSats for scientific purposes into lunar orbit. It will also be essential to test the behavior of Orion, one of the novelties of this program. A capsule that promises great autonomy and structural integrity even in emergency situations, being able to ensure the survival of its passengers (it is designed to carry 4 astronauts at a time) in critical situations, until a safe landing. Precisely because of the need to test these means again, there will be no astronauts on board Artemis 1. The goal is to launch the Orion capsule in a lunar trajectory, then making two different orbits around our satellite before returning to Earth. During the first orbit, the Orion will approach the surface, to lose speed and perform a second flyover much higher. In this second case, the capsule will move more than 60,000 km away from the lunar surface. After this second overflight, the capsule will use a gravitational slingshot to exit the lunar orbit and return to the Earth, in the manner of the Moon’s surface. One of the primary objectives of the mission will be to survive the reentry phase. The Orion capsule has never yet been tested to survive reentry from a lunar orbit. In this case, the capsule will have in fact a reentry in the atmosphere with an initial speed higher than 35,000 km/h. On this occasion, the heat shield of the capsule will reach temperatures of about 2700 C°. During the Artemis 1 flight, the Orion will become the capsule designed to accommodate astronauts to go farther from Earth. For now, the record still stands with the Apollo 13 mission. Artemis 1 is the only one of the three planned missions for which a detailed flight plan is available. It will in fact spend 25 days in space, six of them in lunar retrograde orbit, before ditching in the Pacific Ocean. As mentioned above, the Orion capsule will not host astronauts, so the life support, displays, and control instrumentation have been removed. In its place have been inserted sensors and scientific instruments capable of detecting every single parameter inside the capsule, such as radiation level, pressures, and temperatures. Onboard there will be two dummies, on which are placed sensors to monitor all the levels of radiation they will undergo. One of these will be protected with a new protective vest, the second will be instead without. Together with the Orion capsule, 13 Cubesats will leave towards the Moon, representing the secondary payload: 13 small satellites each of which will have specific tasks. Some will conduct experiments in biology on the growth of yeast subjected to radiation, others will follow the solar flares or look for ice on the lunar surface. Very interesting is the CubeSat mission called Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, which is basically a technology demonstrator of a controllable solar sail spacecraft. The goal is to test a vehicle capable of reaching near-Earth asteroids. This CubeSat will leave the Earth-Moon system and attempt to head toward an asteroid. Observations will be obtained through a close flyover using a high-resolution monochrome camera to measure the physical properties of the asteroid. If Artemis 1 proves to be a success, then Nasa will impose about two years of hard work to improve the whole system, so that – during 2023 or 2024 – we can kick off Artemis 2, that is the first manned flight into lunar orbit after fifty years. It will not perform the moon landing, but it will be a fundamental step for the continuation of the program. “Hey, guys, just a moment before we continue… let us know what you think about the video so far! Leave us a like if you’re enjoying it, and a dislike if you think we can do better!!” The second mission: Artemis 2 The Artemis 2 mission will be the first with 4 astronauts on board. The objective is to perform a flyover of the Moon with a crew on board, but it will not yet descend to the surface. For the first time after more than 50 years, astronauts will see the Earth from lunar orbit. The Orion capsule will perform a single orbit around the Moon, coming within 7500 km of the surface at its closest point. The second stage of the Space Launch System will ignite to rip the Orion capsule from Earth’s gravitational pull, after which it will undock. Here one of the first experiments of the mission will begin. Immediately after undocking, the astronauts will take manual control of the Orion and try to approach and depart from the second stage with the capsule’s controls. This will provide a precise comparison to measure the capsule’s manual maneuverability in vacuum for future precision docking. For Artemis 3 and all subsequent missions, in fact, Orion capsules will need to perform continuous docking with the Gateway and SpaceX landers that will be waiting for them in lunar orbit. Artemis 2’s voyage will also be used to test the tightness of the Deep Space Network. This is the network of antennas and receivers scattered around the world that allows us to stay in touch with probes exploring the solar system. In the first part of the journey, the Orion capsule will still be connected to Earth with the GPS system and the Tracking Data Relay Satellite System. Once away, only the Deep Space Network will be able to maintain contact with the four astronauts. This will be an important test, since transmissions with a capsule with astronauts are extremely more complex and heavy than those of a robotic probe. Once these tests are passed, the Orion capsule will use its engines to enter a trajectory called Translunar injection maneuver. This maneuver is the least expensive ever for the reentry from the Moon and involves a single turn around the satellite before returning to Earth. The third mission: Artemis 3 Artemis 3, which optimistically will launch in 2025, will be the first mission to bring a woman to the lunar surface, possibly with a black astronaut. Only two of the four astronauts will descend to the Moon, with the other half of the crew waiting for them aboard the Orion capsule if the Gateway Lunar Orbital Station is not yet ready. The mission to the surface will last nearly a week, during which up to four extravehicular activities may be completed. The landing will take place in an area close to the lunar South Pole, which should allow the astronauts to perform the first ice sampling. Awaiting them will also find a non-pressurized rover, which will be able to ensure “excursions” away from 5 to 15 km. The objective, in this case, is to be able to reach areas in the shade, to collect samples of rocks not affected by sunlight. Nasa is not only interested in the shadow zones of the Moon, but the agency is also studying the illuminated areas of the lunar South Pole. For example, the rim of Shackleton Crater is almost constantly illuminated by sunlight…ideal conditions for storing solar energy. Before this mission will also take place the assembly of the Lunar Gateway, whose two modules should be launched also by SpaceX by the first half of 2024. As already mentioned, it is thought that for the Artemis 3 mission the Lunar Gateway will not be used yet, but for all subsequent ones, the astronauts will be able to stay aboard this station before descending to the Moon. For this first lunar landing, the four astronauts who will arrive in lunar orbit will have to dock with the SpaceX lander, which will wait for them in orbit and then bring them to Earth. The goal of the entire Artemis program is to create the infrastructure and technology necessary for an extended stay on the surface. The missions that will follow Artemis 3 will then be tasked with consolidating all the basic elements of the program. Starting in 2025, the Lunar Gateway expansion will begin, with the arrival of the European modules. Then it will be necessary to confirm the reliability of the landers made available by SpaceX, and establish the feasibility that they can be stationed at the Gateway before descending to the surface. Once this is done NASA and the international partners will have the tools to start the construction of the Artemis Base Camp. This will be the permanent station on the surface, of which little is known beyond these generic goals. The other major project that will see the light of day in the upcoming Artemis missions is the lunar satellite communications constellation. This series of satellites, tentatively named LunaNet. This service will allow to equip the Moon with a communications service with the Earth and between the various means on the surface and in orbit, as well as in the future also access to the Internet. In this way, the various satellites will act as a network of repeaters to Earth. It seems almost all ready, then. We just have to pray.