(Video will play at start of 10 second launch countdown)
NASA has launched the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket in the world for the first time, carrying the agency’s Orion spacecraft on its way to the Moon as part of the Artemis program.
The launch is the first leg of a mission in which Orion is planned to travel approximately 40,000 miles beyond the Moon and return to Earth over the course of 25.5 days. Known as Artemis I, the test mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration before astronauts fly to the Moon on the Artemis II mission.
“What an incredible sight to see NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft launch together for the first time. This uncrewed flight test will push Orion to the limits in the rigors of deep space, helping us prepare for human exploration on the Moon and, ultimately, Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
After reaching its initial orbit, Orion deployed its solar arrays and engineers began performing checkouts of the spacecraft’s systems. About 1.5 hours into flight, the rocket’s upper stage engine successfully fired for approximately 18 minutes to give Orion the big push needed to send it out of Earth orbit and toward the Moon.
Orion has separated from its upper stage and is on its outbound coast to the Moon powered by its service module, which is the propulsive powerhouse provided by ESA (European Space Agency) through an international collaboration.
Within the first 24 hours of flight a series of 10 CubeSats carrying small science investigations and technology demonstrations will deploy from a ring that connected the upper stage to the spacecraft.
Orion’s service module will also perform the first of a series of burns to keep it on course towards the Moon. In the coming days, mission controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will conduct additional checkouts and course corrections as needed.
Orion is expected to reach the Moon on November 21, performing a close approach of the lunar surface on its way to a distant retrograde orbit, a highly stable orbit thousands of miles beyond the Moon.
“The Space Launch System rocket delivered the power and performance to send Orion on its way to the Moon,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager. “With the accomplishment of the first major milestone of the mission, Orion will now embark on the next phase to test its systems and prepare for future missions with astronauts.”
The SLS launch was the third attempt – a launch in September was abandoned because of a liquid hydrogen leak and one was canceled in August because of a faulty temperature sensor.