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NASA’s enormous SLS rocket has launched to space for the first time

The powerful Space Launch System rocket has finally launched. It took off from Cape Canaveral this morning and is the first step of NASA’s plan to put people back on the moon

Space 16 November 2022

The most powerful rocket ever built has finally taken off for the first time. The Space Launch System (SLS) launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1.47 am EST on 16 November (6.47 am GMT), the rocket’s first flight and the first stepping stone of NASA’s path back to the moon.

This launch is the opening salvo of the Artemis programme, so the mission is called Artemis I. The launch was a triumphant beginning to the mission, which is set to last 26 days. During this time the Orion crew capsule at the tip of the rocket will glide to the moon, orbit it for six days and then return to Earth to splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

For Artemis I, Orion isn’t carrying any astronauts. Instead, it holds mannequins equipped with sensors to measure radiation levels and the forces that astronauts would have to endure if they were aboard. It also carries 10 small satellites called cubesats to study space weather and the moon, and to demonstrate technology that will be useful for future missions. One even has a solar sail and will attempt to fly to a small asteroid.

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“We’re missing no opportunity to do science right away, that’s why we have the cubesats there and the experiments and so forth – whatever we can do, we will,” says NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen.

One of the main goals is to test Orion’s heat shield, which will undergo temperatures of almost 2800°C as it enters Earth’s atmosphere at upwards of 40,000 kilometres per hour. “The risk for Orion is higher than the risk for the rocket,” Zurbuchen told New Scientist. “Bringing Orion back is going to be as big a challenge as getting off the Earth.” If Orion passes that crucial test, the next step will be its first crewed flight, Artemis II.

NASA's Space Launch System rocket taking off from Kennedy Space Center

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 16 November for the start of a mission to orbit the moon

NASA/BILL INGALLS/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Planned for 2024, the crewed mission will be a flight around the moon and is planned to last only about 10 days. Finally, in 2025, Artemis III is expected to take two astronauts to the surface of the moon – including the first woman ever to set foot there. It will be the first crewed lunar landing since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 and, NASA officials hope, the beginning of a long project to build a lunar space station and a sustained human exploration programme on the moon.

“We’re hoping to do this in a more sustainable manner, so that we can have a long-term presence on the moon rather than just putting boots down and poking around a little bit,” says Emily Judd at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. “As part of that, we will be testing out new technologies, new vehicles, getting crew members practice for longer-duration missions, which all leads towards expanding our presence out further into the solar system, looking towards sending crew to Mars.”

As the rocket hurtled off into the sky, it was hard to forget the long road that led here. The SLS programme began in 2011 with a mandate to be fully operational by the end of 2016. Technical difficulties and budget overruns delayed the launch time and time again, so much so that it became a joke in the space flight community – “when SLS launches” was almost akin to “when hell freezes over”. After delays throughout August, September and October due to engine cooling issues, fuel leaks and weather, the fact that it has finally flown is almost unbelievable.

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