NASA’s future lunar rocket makes a christening… from the air

NASA’s new giant rocket is due to make its first flight to the launch pad on Thursday, March 17, ahead of a series of tests that, if successful, should lead to a trip to the moon this summer.

The SLS rocket will leave the assembly building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:00 pm (9:00 pm GMT), and it will take eleven long hours to reach the legendary Launch Complex 39B in a huge tracked vehicle, located just over six hours. kilometers further.

Astronomical costs

With the Orion capsule attached to its tip, the SLS rocket rises 98 meters high, taller than the Statue of Liberty but slightly short of the 110 meters of the Saturn V rocket that sent a man to the moon during the Apollo missions. However, the SLS will produce 39.1 meganewtons of thrust, 15% more than the Saturn V, making it the most powerful rocket in the world today. “This is the symbol of our country“, Tom Whitmyer, a senior NASA official, told the press this week. The symbol, however, is accompanied by a bill of $4.1 billion for the launch of the first four Artemis missions to the moon, said US space agency Inspector General Paul Martin, speaking before Congress in this month.

Once the launch pad has been reached, engineers will have about two weeks to run a series of tests before a pre-launch dress rehearsal. On April 3, the SLS team will load more than three million liters of cryogenic fuel into the rocket and repeat each stage of the countdown to the last 10 seconds without firing the engines. The rocket will then be de-fueled to demonstrate a safe aborted launch.

To the moon and beyond

NASA is targeting an early May launch of Artemis 1, an unmanned lunar mission that will be the first to combine an SLS rocket and an Orion capsule. The SLS will first launch Orion into low Earth orbit and then, thanks to its upper stage, perform “translunar injectionThis maneuver is needed to send Orion more than 450,000 km from Earth and almost 64,000 km beyond the Moon, farther than any other habitable spacecraft. During its three-week mission, Orion will deploy ten shoebox-sized CubeSats , which will collect information about deep space.

The capsule will travel to the far side of the Moon using thrusters provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and then return to Earth. His landing will take place in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California. We’ll have to wait until Artemis 2, scheduled for 2024, to see a manned test flight. The capsule will then circumnavigate the moon without landing there, while Artemis 3, scheduled for 2025, should see the first woman and first person of color set foot on lunar land, the moon’s south pole. NASA wants to test certain technologies on the Moon that it wants to use on its future missions to Mars in the 2030s.

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SLS vs starship

The commissioning of the SLS should allow it to move into the category of launchers.superheavy“, at the moment consists only of Space X’s Falcon Heavy, smaller than the SLS. However, Elon Musk’s company is developing another deep space rocket: Starship, which is fully reusable and, according to the billionaire, will be ready for orbital tests in this year.

The Starship would be both larger and more powerful than the SLS: at 120 meters high, it could develop thrust in excess of 75 meganewtons. It would also be much cheaper. According to Elon Musk, within a few years, the launch cost could be reduced to $10 million.

But a direct comparison between the two rockets is complicated by the fact that the SLS is designed to reach its final destination directly, while SpaceX plans to put a Starship rocket into orbit and then resupply with another Starship rocket to increase its reach and payload. . NASA has also awarded SpaceX a contract to develop a version of the Starship that will be used as a lunar lander for Artemis.

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