The US space agency Nasa has launched the most powerful rocket ever from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The 100 meter high Artemis vehicle climbed up in an astonishing mix of light and sound.
The goal was to hurl an astronaut capsule toward the moon.
This spacecraft, known as Orion, is not screwed for this particular flight, but if everything works as it should, people will climb aboard for future missions to the lunar surface.
Wednesday’s flight followed two previous launch attempts in August and September that were aborted during the countdown due to technical issues.
But such problems were overcome on this occasion and the Space Launch System, as the rocket is often referred to, was given the “go” to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center at 01:47 local time (06:47 GMT).
“Today we witnessed the world’s most powerful rocket take Earth by the edges and shake out the wicked,” said Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis mission manager. “We currently have a priority one mission in play.”
His boss, the bureau’s clerk, Bill Nelson, was also impressed.
“That’s the biggest flame I’ve ever seen. It’s the most acoustic shock wave I’ve ever experienced,” he noted. “I have to say what we saw tonight was an A+. But we still have a long way to go. This is just a test flight.”
The rocket had to perform some key maneuvers high above the planet to get the Orion capsule on the right path to the moon. They all performed “excellently,” said John Honeycutt, NASA’s SLS program manager.
The ship will now rely on its European propulsion module to guide it safely through the rest of the mission.
Josef Aschbacher is Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA): “We need to make sure that Orion gets safely to the moon, orbits the moon and then, as you know, we need to get it back to Earth safely, making sure the capsule enters the atmosphere on the right trajectory and at the right angle so that it can land in the Pacific Ocean. Yes, our job starts now and it’s a huge responsibility.”
In December, NASA will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17, the very last time humans walked on the moon.
The space agency names its new program Artemis (Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology).
It plans a series of increasingly complex missions over the next decade that should result in a more sustainable presence on Earth’s satellite, with the presence of surface habitats and the use of rovers, along with a mini-space station in lunar orbit.
NASA hopes it will be a new inspiration for a new era. It has promised that women and people of color will play a role in these efforts, something that did not happen 50 years ago.
“I wanted to be an astronaut from the age of five.” said astronaut Jessica Meir. “For anyone who has a dream or some kind of aspiration, when they see someone they can relate to a little bit, it puts them in a totally different perspective where they can say, ‘Well, wait a minute, that person was just like me, and they did it so that I can too’.”
Analysis by Rebecca Morelle, BBC News Science Editor
In 1972, Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan left the last footprints on the moon. When he left the lunar surface, he said he thought it wouldn’t be long before we returned. It’s been 50 years. But today the moon is once again within reach for humanity.
With the roar of its mighty engines, NASA’s new rocket has ushered us into a new era of human spaceflight.
NASA’s astronauts watched — if this mission is a success, they’ll be on board next time, first flying around the moon and then landing on it.
But we’re not there yet. The Orion spacecraft may be underway, but it still has more than a million miles to go. It must reach the moon, orbit it, and then return home. NASA must demonstrate that this system is safe before astronauts can be strapped in for the ride.
Orion is being sent on a 26-day excursion that will take him into what is called a distant retrograde lunar orbit.
At its closest, the capsule will be only 100 km from the lunar surface; at its farthest, Orion will be up to 70,000 km (45,000 mi). This will be the furthest from Earth that a human-rated spacecraft has ever ventured.
The capsule will return to Earth on December 11 – in about three and a half weeks.
That’s when one of the most important events in the entire mission happens.
Engineers are very concerned to learn that Orion’s heat shield will withstand the extreme temperatures it will encounter upon reentry into our planet’s atmosphere.
The capsule enters very quickly – at 38,000 km/h (24,000 mph), or 32 times the speed of sound.
A shield on the underside must withstand temperatures approaching 3,000C.
The United Kingdom is playing its part in the Artemis adventure, and not just as a member state of the European Space Agency.
On Wednesday, the Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall picked up the Orion ship’s radio signal as it came off the top of the rocket. By analyzing the shift in frequencies as the capsule moved through space, NASA was able to better calculate the trajectory for a later course correction.
Goonhilly will send commands to six of the 10 small satellites also elevated by the SLS missile.
“We started our business here less than 12 years ago with the ambition to do deep space communications,” explains Ian Jones, CEO of Goonhilly.
“We thought we’d pick up bits here and there now, not to actually command spacecraft on NASA’s first return to the moon, which is brilliant.”