NASA’s mission to get back to the Moon, known as Artemis, is moving quickly. In a report issued this week, the space agency provided some much-anticipated clarification on the milestones it needs to smash in order to fulfill its ambitions for the mission.
Artemis — sister to Apollo, legendary in NASA’s history — has two phases: the first is getting Americans back to the lunar surface, and the second concerns itself with building sustainable systems on and around the Moon.
It’s a project every bit as ambitious as anything SpaceX and Blue Origin are pursuing, and NASA has an aggressive timeline for getting phase 1 done by 2024. But in a call Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters he was cautiously optimistic the agency would meet their goals.
“2024 is an aggressive timeline. Is it possible? Yes. Does everything have to go right? Yes,” he said.
Here are seven major deadlines that NASA has to hit for Artemis to earn its place next to the Apollo missions.
Early 2021: Fitting the CAPSTONE
The crux of Artemis Phase II is the Lunar Gateway, a planned space station that would orbit the Moon. Essentially an interstellar gas station for spacecraft, the Gateway is one of the most controversial parts of NASA’s plan. CAPSTONE CubeSat will get things rolling next year by making sure the Gateway’s orbit is even possible.
Called a near rectilinear halo orbit, it reaches what NASA calls a “precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon,” which will allow the Gateway long-term stability with only minimal energy.
CAPSTONE (short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment), around 55 pounds and the size of a microwave, will orbit the Moon in NHRO for six months to learn how this orbit would work in reality.
NASA thinks it will be able to leverage data gained from sustaining life on the Gateway to plan for future deep-space destinations like Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.
But the Lunar Gateway is another space station, not a manned lunar lander, which is NASA’s ultimate goal.
Initially part of the 2024 plan, the Gateway has been pushed back. It remains to be seen if CAPSTONE will keep it on track.