The SLS on the launch pad at dusk, with the moon in the background.

The Artemis I mission will attempt a second launch on 3 September. ©NASA/JPL

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To the moon and beyond: An essential guide to Artemis I

Update: NASA has now launched its new rocket on its uncrewed test flight to the Moon and back, beginning the countdown to place humans on the lunar surface for the first time in 50 years.

Artemis I is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions to establish a long-term human presence on the moon and provide the foundation for human deep-space exploration.

The mission will launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida using the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the most powerful rocket in the world, standing at almost 100 metres tall.

On top of the SLS is Orion, NASA's next-generation spacecraft designed for human missions into deep space. The rocket will send Orion 64,000 kilometres beyond the far side of the moon, further than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

Artemis I was originally due to launch on 29 August 2022 but had to be called off shortly before take-off due to engine problems. The launch scheduled for 3 September was also delayed due to a leak in the fuel tank. 

It was third time lucky for the rocket, which successfully lifted off on 16 November 2022.

The SLS on the lauch pad in Florida with clouds in the background.

The SLS was due to launch on 29 August, but was called off last minutes due to a technical issue. ©NASA/Joel Kowsky

What is the purpose of Artemis I?

The main objective of the uncrewed Artemis I mission is to test all of its systems to see if they are ready to carry astronauts to the moon and back. This testing will include the SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft and ground systems in Florida that successfully prepare rockets and spacecraft for launch.

The Orion spacecraft, which stands at three metres tall, is much roomier than the capsule used in the Apollo missions, built to carry four astronauts instead of three.

For Artemis I, Orion will house a full-size dummy with sensors that will provide data on what crew members may experience during the flight. The dummy 'commander' was named Moonikin Campos, in honour of NASA engineer Arturo Campos who helped save the crew aboard Apollo 13, which had to abort its lunar landing after an oxygen tank exploded 56 hours into the flight.

Campos will accompany two other mannequin torsos, Helga and Zohar. Zohar wears a radiation protective vest equipped with sensors to determine solar radiation levels, one of the most significant risks to astronauts during space travel.

Accompanying the three dummies will be plush toy mascots Shaun the Sheep and Snoopy, who will demonstrate zero gravity by floating around the cabin. Also on board will be thousands of objects, including artefacts from the Apollo missions and Biological Experiment-01 containing experiments on seeds, fungi, yeast and algae.

Two of the test dummies strapped into the Orion capsule.

There will be three test dummies on this first flight, named Moonikin Campos, Helga and Zohar.  ©NASA/JPL

How far will Artemis I travel?

During the mission, Orion will fly further than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown and will stay in space longer than any spacecraft without docking to a space station.

Orion's outbound trip to the moon will take several days. It will then fly up to 97 kilometres above the moon's surface and use its gravitational force to propel it 64,000 kilometres past the moon into a distant orbit.

Orion will then return to Earth, once again completing a close flyby to the lunar surface and using the moon's gravity to accelerate the spacecraft back to Earth.

If all goes to plan, Orion will plunge back into Earth's atmosphere at 40,000 kilometres per hour on 11 December 2022, producing temperatures of approximately 2,800°C. This final stage will test Orion's safe return to Earth, including its heat shield performance and parachute release that will slow Orion's descent to 32 kilometres per hour.

Orion will land at an accurate location in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, precisely 25 days, 11 hours and 36 minutes after take-off and having travelled 2.1 million kilometres.

An artists impression of the Orion space capsule travelling above the Earth.

The Orion capsule is designed to carry four astronauts to the moon and back. ©NASA/JPL

Why are humans returning to the moon?

In 1972, Apollo 17 was the last mission to put humans on the moon. The programme was terminated mainly due to budget issues and a drop in public support at the time.

Artemis, which is aptly named after Apollo's twin sister in Greek Mythology, will restart NASA's lunar programme to investigate the moon's surface in more detail, create economic opportunity and inspire a new generation of explorers.

The Artemis missions will use innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before and help scientists learn more about our solar system and how to access resources on the moon to support a human presence there.

What are the next steps for the Artemis mission?

Eventually, the mission aims to establish the first long-term habitation on the moon which will give scientists the knowledge of how to inhabit other planets and prepare for the next giant leap - the eventual deep space travel to put the first humans on Mars.

If all goes to plan, Artemis II is scheduled for launch in 2024 and will be the first crewed mission in the programme to fly around the moon. Following that, Artemis III will launch in 2025 and land astronauts on the moon, including the first woman and person of colour to ever set foot on the lunar surface.