Head over to CNN for live coverage from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday afternoon. Space reporter Kristen Fisher will give us real-time reports from the launch, along with a team of experts.
The Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft are scheduled to lift off between 2:17 and 4:17 p.m. ET Saturday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Although there is no crew on board, the mission is the first step in the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon and eventually land them on Mars.
There is a 60% chance of favorable weather conditions for the launch, with the chances increasing to 80% at the end of the window, official meteorologist Melody Lovin said during a Friday morning press conference.
If the rocket is unable to launch on Saturday, the next possible launch window will be on Monday.
Once launched, the Orion spacecraft will enter a distant retrograde orbit of the Moon and travel 40,000 miles beyond it, going further than any spacecraft intended to carry humans. Crews aboard Artemis II will ride on a similar route in 2024, and astronauts are scheduled to reach the moon’s south pole in late 2025 on the Artemis III mission. The Artemis program aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon.
Orion’s journey will take about 38 days as it travels to the Moon, orbits it and returns to Earth – traveling 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km). The capsule will fall into the Pacific Ocean off San Diego on October 11.
Here’s everything you can expect before, during and after the launch.
Countdown to launch
Early Saturday, the launch team will do a weather briefing and decide whether to start Rocket fueling.
If everything looks good, the team will start fueling the rocket’s primary stage and then move on to fueling its upper stage. Next, the team will feed and replenish any of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that dissipate during the refueling process.
About 50 minutes before launch, the final briefing for NASA’s Test Director will occur. The launch manager will poll the team to make sure each station “goes off” 15 minutes before take off.
At 10 minutes and counting, things are on high gear as the spacecraft and rocket go through the final steps. Lots of action happens at the last minute as the ground launch sequencer sends the command to the rocket’s flight computer’s automated launch sequencer to take over.
In the last few seconds, the hydrogen will burn, and the four RS-25 engines will start, producing enhanced ignition and starting at T minus zero.
Journey to the moon
Solid rocket boosters will separate from the spacecraft about two minutes into the flight and blast off into the Atlantic Ocean, with other components also discarded shortly thereafter. The rocket’s main stage will separate after about eight minutes and fall toward the Pacific Ocean. Allow the wings of Orion’s solar array to spread out.
Shortly thereafter, the lunar transient injection was burnt, when ICPS increased Orion’s speed from 17,500 mph (28,163 kph) to 22,600 mph (36,371 kph) to escape Earth’s gravity and blast off to the Moon.
After this burn, ICPS will separate from Orion.
At approximately 9:45 p.m. EDT, Orion will perform its first outer trajectory correction burning with the European Service Module, which supplies the spacecraft with power, propulsion, and thermal control. This maneuver will put Orion on the moon’s path.
In the next few days after launch, Orion will venture to the Moon, getting close to 60 miles (96 kilometers) during its closest approach on the sixth day of flight. The service module will put Orion into a distant retrograde orbit around the moon on day 10.
Orion will also surpass the distance record of 248,654 miles (400,169 kilometers) – set by Apollo 13 in 1970 – on the tenth day when it orbits the moon. The spacecraft will achieve its maximum distance from Earth of 280,000 miles (450,616 km) on September 23 when it ventures 40,000 miles (64,373 km) behind the moon.
This is 30,000 miles (48,280 km) away from the record for Apollo 13.
Orion will make its second closest approach to the lunar surface, 500 miles (804 kilometers), on October 5. The service module would experience a burn that would enable the moon’s gravity to launch Orion’s slingshot back on its way to Earth.
Before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, the service module will separate from Orion. The spacecraft will hit the top of Earth’s atmosphere and travel at 25,000 miles per hour (40,233 kilometers per hour), and its heat shield will experience temperatures of nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
The atmosphere will slow Orion to about 300 mph (482 kph), and a series of parachutes will slow it to less than 20 mph (32 kph) before descending into the Pacific at 2:10 PM East on October 11th.
Splashdown will be broadcast live From the NASA website, with views from 17 cameras on the rescue ship and helicopters awaiting Orion’s return.
The landing and recovery team will collect the Orion capsule, and the data will be identified from the spacecraft lessons learned before humans return to the moon.