The next era of manned space exploration is about to dawn as NASA’s Artemis program prepares to send humans back to the moon for the first time in more than half a century. And this milestone will eventually lead to the first human foot on the surface of Mars, if all goes according to plan.
Aug. Scheduled to launch on January 29 is the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built by mankind, from Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, marking the start of the Artemis 1 mission.
The main payload of the SLS will be the Orion spacecraft, which will travel farther into space than any vehicle designed for humans has ever traveled. This will serve as a crucial test for future Artemis missions, in which Orion will bring a woman and a person of color to the surface of the Moon for the first time.
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This will be a stunning achievement in itself. But sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972 has a more important goal: to ensure a sustainable human presence on and around the Moon and to develop infrastructure that will allow humans to penetrate even deeper into the solar system.
Indeed, NASA sees the moon as a “testing ground” for human exploration of Mars, as then-head of the agency Jim Bridenstine said in 2018.
Earlier this year, NASA unveiled its “Moon to Mars” goals, which identified 50 key milestones falling under the broad categories of exploration, transportation and housing, lunar and Martian infrastructure, operations, and science.
“These goals will propel us towards our first analog crewed Mars mission in space and prepare us for the first human mission to the surface of the Red Planet,” said Jim Free, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Office of Exploration Systems Development Mission. in May (will open in a new tab).
Staircase and testing ground
The advantage of using the Moon as a springboard to Mars is its proximity to the Earth. A crewed mission could get to or from the Moon in as little as three days, while a direct mission from Earth to Mars or vice versa would take at least seven months, and a round-trip mission is estimated to take about 500 days.
NASA will be paying close attention to the effects of limited gravity — or microgravity — on the human body during manned missions to the Moon to assess the effects of long journeys to Mars.
Keeping the concept of sustainability in mind, the Artemis 1 mission will also deliver 10 tiny cubesats into space. Some of these small satellites have an explicit mission: to map the distribution of water on the Moon. This includes searching for reserves of hydrogen trapped in ice in the dark and cold craters of the lunar polar regions.
Water found on the lunar surface could be used for more than just keeping astronauts alive. Techniques are currently being developed to turn lunar water into rocket fuel. This could mean that a ship traveling from Earth to Mars would not need to take off with all the propellant needed to cross the long bay to the Red Planet.
Carrying less fuel would make interplanetary missions more cost-effective, or allow spacecraft to carry more payloads and scientific instruments.
Upcoming Artemis missions to the lunar surface, the first of which should be Artemis 3 no earlier than 2025, will also test new technologies off-Earth that could eventually be deployed to Mars.
According to NASA, early discussions of such technology included mobile tool kits to search for resources in alien expanses and a habitable mobile platform that would allow humans to work on the lunar surface for up to 45 days.
Other proposed systems that could be tested on the lunar surface before being sent to Mars are human habitats and life support systems that allow astronauts to work for long periods of time at distances up to 1,000 times the distance between our planet and Earth. International space station. (The ISS orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 250 miles or 400 kilometers.)
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Gateway to Mars
While Artemis 1 will serve as an important test of many of the technologies needed for long-duration space travel, one important aspect of NASA’s plans for a crewed moon launch remains undetermined – the Gateway space station.
Gateway will be the first space station to orbit the moon. Equipped with docking points for various spacecraft, a module called the Habitable and Logistics Outpost (HALO) that serves as the station’s living and working areas, and scientific equipment, the Gateway will increase the resilience of operations on the Moon and manned deep space missions. Representatives of NASA speak about it. It will also enable refueling for long-duration space missions.
But even before such travel begins, Gateway, whose key components are expected to launch no earlier than November 2024, will help NASA and other space agencies investigate the impact of long-term deep space missions on the human body.
The Gateway will also play an important role in delivering materials to the Moon, which will help develop infrastructure on the lunar surface.
This infrastructure will eventually include a transportation system that can deliver large payloads from Earth to Mars via the Moon, if all goes according to plan. This possibility, in turn, will lead to the development of energy systems on the surface of Mars, which will allow people to stay on the Red Planet for a long time.
These are not short term goals. NASA currently estimates that humans will not be ready to set foot on Mars until at least the late 2030s or early 2040s. However, it is clear that Artemis 1 represents an important first step on the long journey to Mars.
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