Even though humans have been pushing satellites and other people into space for over 50 years now, space travel isn’t any less exciting. Here are a few upcoming launches you should watch, and why they matter.
Artemis 1 might be the most important mission for NASA in at least the past decade. It’s the first full test of the Space Launch System, a massive multi-stage rocket intended to serve the same purpose as the Saturn V from the 1960s — sending humans to the Moon. Modified versions could be used to send heavy cargo into space (like parts for new space stations) or to take humans to Mars and beyond.
This initial mission is uncrewed (no people are in the ship), but the goal is to launch the empty Orion space capsule on a 280,000-mile trip to the Moon and back. If all goes well, Artemis II could take humans on the same trip. The current launch window opens on November 16, 2022 at 1:04 AM Eastern Time. Live coverage will be available on the NASA app, the agency’s website, and the NASA YouTube channel.
The launch has already been pushed back several times, due to technical problems and weather. The first launch window was set for August 29, 2022, but it was cancelled due to detected problems with cooling an engine. NASA tried again on September 3, but stopped due to a liquid hydrogen leak in the core stage, then the rocket was rolled back into the Vehicle Assembly Building as Hurricane Ian approached Florida. It’s now back on the launchpad, but there’s still a chance that Tropical Storm Nicole could change NASA’s plans again.
SpaceX has been flying cargo to the International Space Station for years, thanks to a contract with NASA, using the Dragon 1 and Dragon 2 spacecraft. The next “Cargo Dragon” mission is set for November 18, 2022.
Even though the Dragon capsule can carry people to the International Space Station — the first time was in 2020 — there won’t be any people on this mission. SpaceX CRS-26 Mission will be an uncrewed mission to resupply the space station, using a Cargo Dragon capsule and a Falcon 9 rocket. The payload includes a portable handheld microscope to improve health diagnosis in space, solar arrays for the station, an experiment with tomatoes, and more.
The current launch is targeted for November 18, and will take place at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX will likely show a livestream on its YouTube channel, and the launch may also appear on the NASA app, the agency’s website, and the NASA YouTube channel.
Another part of NASA’s plan for Moon missions is Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS for short. The program aims to have private companies (like SpaceX) launch cargo to the moon and/or conduct science missions on behalf of NASA.
Intuitive Machines of Houston, a space exploration company based in (you guessed it) Houston, Texas, is conducting the next mission in the CLPS program. It’s a Moon landing with four NASA payloads, which will run experiments on the lunar surface. One of the payloads is a small data relay satellite. The experiments will gather data for use in future crewed and uncrewed Moon missions.
The launch is currently scheduled for December 22, 2022, using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Because SpaceX is handling the launch, there will likely be a livestream on SpaceX’s YouTube channel, or possibly a stream on the NASA YouTube channel.
SpaceX isn’t the only American company trying to carry people to space — Boeing has also been trying to make it happen. The company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft looks a bit like the SpaceX Dragon and Apollo command module, but is slightly larger than both vehicles. Boeing and NASA already completed two space flights with no one onboard, but the next attempt will have a crew.
The first Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT) is scheduled for sometime in April 2023, launched with an Atlas V rocket. NASA has selected Barry Eugene Wilmore and Sunita Williams as the crew, both of whom previously flew on Space Shuttle missions, with Michael Fincke as a backup. If all goes well, Starliner will fly to the International Space Station, then return to Earth in the same ship after a week.
NASA said on its website, “the CFT astronauts will live and work on the space station for about two weeks. Following a successful crewed flight, NASA will work to complete certification of the Starliner spacecraft and systems for regular crew rotation missions to the space station.”
Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE for short, is a small satellite about the size of a microwave oven. The rocket launch was back on July 4, 2022, so there’s no exciting upcoming livestream for this one — this is more of an honorary mention, since the satellite hasn’t reached its target yet.
CAPSTONE is taking an unusual path to the Moon that NASA calls Ballistic Lunar Transfer, or BLT for short — no relation to the sandwich, probably. NASA said in a blog post, “assisted by the Sun’s gravity, the spacecraft will reach a distance of 958,000 miles from Earth — more than three times the distance between Earth and the Moon — before being pulled back towards the Earth-Moon system.”
CAPSTONE is unique because it will be the first spacecraft to enter a special elongated orbit around the Moon. That’s the same orbit NASA hopes to use for the proposed Gateway space station around the Moon, which makes CAPSTONE an important learning opportunity. In that special orbit, less fuel is required maintain orbit, which is important when the nearest fuel stop is hundreds of thousands of miles away.
Once it reaches lunar orbit, CAPSTONE’s job will be testing a technology called Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS), which is a bit like Google Maps for space travel. NASA said in another blog post, “CAPS will demonstrate innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation solutions that will allow future spacecraft to determine their location without having to rely exclusively on tracking from Earth.” The technology involves communicating directly with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has orbited the Moon since 2009.
Source: NASA Launch Schedule