The Artemis program that would return humans to the Moon will kick off with the launch of Artemis I later this year. NASA will conduct the launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida using its Space Launch System (SLS) mega-rocket on its first liftoff. Currently under development, the rocket will have a total of 73 launch opportunities if the agency plans to launch it this year.
NASA on Monday released the full schedule for the Artemis I mission and potential launch opportunities the agency could use to send the rocket to the moon. According to NASA’s schedule, the first launch window begins on July 26 and runs until December 23, 2022. Let’s take a look at the potential launch opportunities marked by NASA.
July 26 – August 10: 13 launch opportunities except August 1, 2 and 6
August 23 – September 6: 12 launch opportunities except August 30, 31 and September 1
September 20 – October 4: 14 launch opportunities except September 29
October 17 – October 31: 11 launch opportunities except October 24, 25, 26 and 28
November 12 – November 27: 12 launch opportunities except November 20, 21 and 26
December 9 – December 23: 11 launch opportunities except December 10, 14, 18 and 23
Parameters dictating launch opportunities
Although the number of launch windows seems sufficient for a single launch, NASA has highlighted some major parameters that dictate launch opportunities during the aforementioned time frame. To understand these parameters, it should first be noted that the uncrewed Orion spacecraft, ready for launch during Artemis I, will be sent into a special trajectory called the Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO). This orbit is said to be stable due to the balance created by the gravitational forces of the Earth and the Moon and also allows a spacecraft to navigate with less fuel expenditure. Tap here to learn more about this orbit and Orion’s mission profile.
Now, NASA searches for the perfect day by taking into account the position of the moon during its lunar cycle so that the Orion capsule can be easily inserted into the DRO. The upper stage of the SLS rocket is needed to execute a large move called Trans-Lunar Injection, or TLI, in which the capsule will be sent 3,86,242 kilometers from Earth and 64,373 kilometers beyond the moon.
Another major parameter is taking into account the trajectory of the Orion spacecraft when it is pushed through space. The trajectory must be such that the spacecraft does not remain in darkness for more than 90 minutes. Orion needs sunlight to power its solar panels to generate electricity and maintain an optimal temperature range. The launch date allowing an entry jump maneuver is another important parameter.
This maneuver is a re-entry technique in which a spacecraft dives into the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere and uses that atmosphere, along with the capsule’s elevator, to simultaneously slow down and jump out of the atmosphere, then re-enter to the final descent and landing. NASA says “the technique allows engineers to pinpoint the location of Orion’s splashdown and on future missions will help reduce aerodynamic breaking loads for astronauts.” The fourth and final parameter is that the launch date must provide daylight conditions during Orion’s splashdown when recovery personnel locate, secure, and recover the spacecraft from the Pacific Ocean.