February 3, 2023

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NASA’s giant SLS rocket is finally launching the Artemis 1 lunar mission

After years of delays and multiple launch failures, the wait is finally over: NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule lifted off at 1:48 p.m. Eastern time, heading for a historic flyby of the Moon. Crowds of onlookers watched at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the thunder of a NASA rocket was once again heard on the same launch pad where shuttles and the Apollo missions began their journeys into space.

The 212-foot rocket, including an orange core stage and two white solid-fuel rocket boosters, had rested on a ground structure called the mobile launcher, as in previous tests. As the boosters fired, the rocket rose above a burst of flame, and then it quickly exited the launch tower and then began its ascent through the atmosphere, an orange streak blazing behind it. “Liftoff for Artemis 1,” announced Derrol Nail, NASA livestream commentator. “We’re ascending together, back to the moon and beyond.”

After the two-minute mark, the SLS boosters burned through their propellant and fell off. About eight minutes after launch, the core stage rocket used up its fuel and also separated. That left the Orion unmanned capsule still attached to the upper stage rocket and the European Space Agency-supplied service module that provides the spacecraft’s main propulsion and power. Orion continued at over 16,000 miles per hour and deployed its solar arrays a few minutes later.

If the mission goes according to plan, the capsule will separate from the SLS upper stage after about two hours. As it drifts away, the upper tier will then disperse – in batches – 10 small spacecraft known as CubeSats and send them out to conduct mini-missions around the Moon, Mars and a near-Earth asteroid.

Meanwhile, Orion will keep flying, taking about 10 days to reach the Moon, where it will spend a few weeks in what’s called a “distant retrograde orbit” that balances the gravitational pull of the Earth and Moon and doesn’t use much fuel to maintain. As it orbits the moon, it will capture images of Earth and its satellite – including one like the iconic “Earthrise” photo taken on the Apollo 8 mission – and collect space radiation data to help scientists learn more about potential health risks for astronauts can experience on extensive journeys beyond the protective atmosphere of the earth.

At the end of November, Orion will leave this orbit and fly 40,000 miles beyond the Moon – the furthest distance a spacecraft capable of carrying humans has ever traveled – before slinging past it on its way to Earth in early December. Its 26-day journey will end when it parachutes into the waters of the Pacific Ocean about 50 miles off the coast of San Diego, likely on December 11.

Members of the Artemis mission team are thrilled that this moment has arrived – and also concerned about the first major moonshot since the Apollo era. “I’m excited to start this Artemis mission series to return to the moon and basically usher in a new era that will represent deeper exploration of space and one day to Mars. I’m really looking forward to seeing this rocket turn night into day as it lifts off tonight. It’s going to be spectacular,” said NASA astronaut Christina Koch on Tuesday before launch. The Artemis program will have many scientific, economic and other benefits, she says, thanks to NASA’s international and commercial partnerships, and it will help inspire the next generation of space explorers.