NASA’s new rocket, called the Space Launch System, or SLS, has received heavy criticism—much of it garnering the craft’s massive 322-foot costs. The rocket was supposed to be launched years ago. As the long-awaited flight finally approached this year, engine problems and fuel leaks delayed the first flight several times. Then hurricane season woke up, which set back the launch.
But at 1:48 a.m. ET On November 16, the space agency started the SLS’s thundering engines and finally launched the new massive rocket into space. The mission, called Artemis I, captured the agency’s newest lunar-bound spacecraft, Orion, which carried three mannequins on a circular trip around the moon. In the coming years, perhaps as soon as 2025, the Artemis mission may once again land on the surface of a natural satellite.
Now the most powerful operational missile on Earth, the SLS will play an essential role in helping the United States establish a permanent presence on and around the Moon for at least the next decade or so. (Commercial rockets will play an essential role, too.) The SLS is a “scalable” rocket, meaning it can be set up in six different ways as NASA sends essential lunar supplies and materials and astronauts to the moon.
“It’s a great pickup truck. I’m glad we built it. And I’m ready to fly,” John Blevins, chief engineer of NASA’s SLS rocket, told Mashable earlier this year.
The space race forged the timeless rock and roll guitars
NASA completed the Artemis I mission on December 11, after Orion braved temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit in Earth’s atmosphere and then splashed into the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, the rocket has its supporters and detractors. But, crucially, SLS has strong congressional support — thanks to valuable jobs and contracts in many areas — so the rocket will continue to fly, even if the early flights cost $4.1 billion for each launch.
Here are the breathtaking views from the historic 25-day maiden voyage.
the end of the explosion
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These are footage of the explosion in the early hours of November 16th. Once all six engines are ignited, the rocket’s massive thrust plummets to the ground and begins to lift the vehicle. Thirty seconds in, the SLS flies at 128 mph. Eventually the rocket will travel more than 21,000 miles per hour.
trip to space
NASA has released exciting footage of the Megarocket’s flight into space from a camera onboard the rocket. In the video above, you can see the events just two minutes into the flight from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There are two white power boosters on either side of the rocket’s primary orange booster. These are an integral part of the vehicle, because they provide 75 percent of the SLS’s thrust, or the force pushing down against the ground, during the first two minutes of the SLS’ speed through the atmosphere.
But after they’ve used up their fuel, the boosters dramatically (though safely) blast away from the rest of the rocket, including the Orion spacecraft sitting atop the SLS.
These two boosters, which are 17 stories high, are powerful. “These are the largest solid boosters ever built,” Blevins told Mashable.
After the boosters fell away from the Atlantic Ocean, the orange rocket booster, powered by four RS-25 engines (which also power NASA’s space shuttles), continued propelling the SLS rocket beyond Earth. Eventually, the Orion spacecraft separated from this last boost and blew its own engines on a trajectory toward the moon.
Looking back at home
The Orion spacecraft and the solar system with the Moon in the distance
On the first day of the Artemis mission, a camera on the Orion solar array took a picture of Earth as the spacecraft was heading toward the Moon. Already, Orion was 57,000 miles away.
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Deep Cratered Moon
The Cratered Moon as captured by the Orion Optical Navigation Camera.
About a week into the mission, the Orion capsule took pictures from just 80 miles above the lunar surface.
Views show that the moon is a barren desert dotted with craters and hills. Crucially, NASA suspects that some of the satellite’s craters contain amounts of water ice—a resource needed for future deep space missions.
When a space rock hits the moon, the impact crater often remains for billions of years, roughly frozen over by time. This is because, unlike Earth, our moon has no weather that de-collision, nor intense geological activity to cover the surface in new rock.
The Orion spacecraft with the Moon and Earth in the distance.
On day 13 of the mission, Orion made orbit around the Moon 268,563 miles from Earth, a historic achievement.
“Orion has now traveled further than any other spacecraft ever built for humans,” NASA said.
In that orbit (called a “far reverse orbit”), the spacecraft soars 40,000 miles above the lunar surface, enabling it at times to “look” at our natural satellite and beyond, back to Earth.
A flyby of the moon shows a detailed view of the moon.
After nearly three weeks into the flight, the Orion spacecraft fired its engines (which engineers call a “burn”) to swing close to the Moon, eventually putting Orion on a trajectory back to Earth. At closest approach, Orion flew within 80 miles of the moon, allowing for detailed views of its craters and rugged terrain.
Below are views of the two large craters Aristarchus and Herodotus. The squiggly lines are likely from collapsed lava tubes, a tunnel formed by underground lava flows. (Lava tubes are common in places like Hawaii. And yes, the Moon has a strong volcanic past, with eruptions occurring within the past 100 million years.) science reports.)
Jagged craters and collapsing lava tubes on the Moon’s surface
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After tumbling through Earth’s atmosphere, the Orion capsule parachuted into the Pacific Ocean on December 11th. The waiting USS Portland Navy ship, with NASA and a Navy crew aboard, recovered the charred spacecraft.
Artemis I in the bag. The first major step in NASA’s ambitions to return to the Moon has been completed. Next up is Artemis II, which could launch as early as 2024. Two astronauts will be on board this time, though they won’t be landing on the Moon (that’s Artemis III).
“With Orion safely back on Earth, we can begin to see our next mission on the horizon that will take crews to the Moon for the first time as part of the next era of exploration,” according to Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Development Directorate, in a statement. “This begins our path to a regular rhythm of missions and a permanent human presence on the Moon for scientific discovery and preparation for human missions to Mars.”
The Orion spacecraft after landing. USS Portland in the distance.
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