NASA built a new mega rocket for the next lunar astronaut era and launched for the first time on Wednesday.
The Space Launch System (SLS) has been around for 17 years and is estimated to be $50 billion in the making. It is designed to fly astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972, when astronauts performed the last moonwalk of the Apollo era.
Now NASA is launching a new program called Artemis to build a space station in lunar orbit and establish a permanent human presence on the surface of the moon’s south pole. Ultimately, the agency wants to mine resources there to send astronauts to Mars.
This first mission, called Artemis I, is a test flight without astronauts. The rocket soared through the Florida skies early Wednesday, propelling its Orion spaceship into a path around the moon.
If that goes well and the capsule splashes safely into the ocean on December 11, NASA wants to land astronauts on the lunar surface again in 2025.
NASA needs a powerful rocket to carry out such a long-range mission. The current iteration of SLS, called Block 1, stands taller than the Statue of Liberty at 322 feet, about 30 stories.
To understand how big that is and how much power it takes to fly to the moon, let’s compare it to other rockets that astronauts fly.
SLS is huge, but small for a lunar rocket
Let’s start small. The rocket that launched Jeff Bezos to the edge of space in July 2021, called New Shepard, is about the height of a five-story building. It doesn’t have enough engines or large amounts of fuel to push itself into Earth’s orbit.
Instead, New Shepard shaves the edge of the atmosphere in the three minutes between when it stops climbing and when it begins to fall. It then descends back to Earth, for a total flight time of 11 minutes. That’s why it’s called a suborbital rocket.
Then there are orbital rockets, such as Russia’s Soyuz and SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which generate enough thrust to push starships full of people and cargo into orbit, where they can dock at the International Space Station.
Clocking in at 150 to 250 feet, these workhorses are probably what you picture when you think of a standard rocket.
Lunar rockets like the Saturn V, which powered the Apollo program, are about 100 feet higher. They need the extra thrust to push their starships along Earth’s orbit toward the moon.
SLS installed white rocket boosters on the sides of the core stage, which burn solid fuel for additional firepower.
At present, SLS is smaller than its past and future lunar-grade counterparts. But future iterations of the rocket are expected to tower 365 feet.
If Artemis I goes well, the next SLS mission will send an Orion starship around the moon with astronauts on board. The next mission, according to NASA’s plan, will see Orion docking with a SpaceX starship in lunar orbit. Two astronauts will board the new ship and Starship will land them on the south pole of the moon.
Starship and its Super Heavy booster are still under development and testing at SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica, Texas. It’s unclear when they will first launch into orbit — a critical test flight before the rocket can fly humans or land on the moon.
Starship-Super Heavy will be the largest rocket ever built.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on September 24, 2022.
Read the original article on Business Insider