Now that NASA’s Artemis I Moon mission has landed, here’s what’s next
Artemis I’s uncrewed test flight is complete, but Artemis II – which will be the first with astronauts on board – won’t be until at least 2024.
In an interview this summer, Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, spoke about the gap between Artemis I and Artemis II. “I raised Cain,” he said. “If this first mission is successful, meets the objectives and is safe for the astronauts, why can’t we get it faster than two years?”
Mr Nelson said years ago, to save money, NASA decided to reuse some of the electronic equipment, known as avionics, from the Artemis I Orion capsule in the new Orion capsule for Artemis II. “It takes them two years to take the avionics out and redo them,” Nelson said, “which is very frustrating to me, but that’s what it is.”
There will be four astronauts aboard Artemis II. Three will come from NASA and one will be Canadian, as part of the agreement specifying the participation of the Canadian Space Agency in the Artemis program. NASA has not yet announced who will participate in the mission.
The trajectory of Artemis II will be quite simple. After launch, the second stage of the Space Launch System will push Orion into an elliptical orbit that loops up to 1,800 miles above Earth, giving astronauts time to see how Orion’s systems work.
Then, when Orion accelerates again, his engine will fire to send him to the moon. For Artemis II, the Orion spacecraft will not orbit the moon; it will instead use the moon’s gravity to return to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The entire trip should take about 10 days.
The big event will be Artemis III, currently slated for 2025 at the earliest.
During the Apollo moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s, the lunar lander was packed into the Saturn V rocket. The Artemis III lander will be a version of a Starship rocket built by SpaceX. The moon ship will be launched separately. Additional spacecraft would then be launched to refill the lunar craft’s propellant tanks before it leaves Earth’s orbit.
On the moon, the Starship lander will enter what’s called a Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit, or NRHO
Halo’s orbits are influenced by the gravity of two bodies – in this case, the Earth and the Moon – which help make the orbit very stable, minimizing the amount of propellant needed to hold a spacecraft around the Moon. A spacecraft in this orbit also never passes behind the moon, where communications with Earth are cut off.
Once Starship orbits the moon, the Space Launch System rocket will send four astronauts in an Orion capsule to the same near-rectilinear halo orbit. The Orion will dock with the Starship. Two of the astronauts will move to the Starship rocket, landing somewhere near the moon’s south pole, while the other two astronauts will remain in orbit at Orion.
After about a week on the surface, the two moonwalking astronauts will lift off in Starship and return to Orion in orbit. Orion will then bring the four astronauts back to Earth.
In August, NASA announced 13 potential landing sites near the moon’s south pole.
Astronauts aboard Artemis IV will head to Gateway, a space station-like outpost that NASA will build on the same near-rectilinear halo orbit used for Artemis III. This mission will use a Space Launch System rocket with an upgraded second stage, providing enough power to lift Gateway’s habitat module.
Originally, NASA planned for Artemis IV to focus on building Gateway. But this year, he decided that the mission would also include a trip to the lunar surface. Last month, NASA announced that SpaceX would provide the lander for Artemis IV.
For Artemis V and later missions, the lunar lander will be docked at Gateway. Astronauts will arrive at the Gateway on Orion, then head to the lander for the journey to the lunar surface.
NASA is now considering offers for another company to supply the Artemis V lander.
Among the companies that could bid to build a competing lander is Blue Origin, the rocket company launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
NASA would then hold a competition for future lunar landers similar to how it hired companies to ferry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.