NASA has rolled out its new Space Launch System (SLS) moon rocket ahead of the craft’s maiden flight.
The SLS is the first launch in the new Artemis programme, aiming to use missions to the moon as a precursor to the first manned flights to Mars.
Due for its first launch on 29 August, the unmanned SLS mission is designed to check the rocket’s ability to get astronauts on the surface of the moon for the first time in 50 years, and to test the ability of the crew capsule’s heatshield to safety re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
The SLS will have 15% more thrust of the launchpad than NASA’s previous service rockets, the Saturn Vs, and the crew capsule, known as Orion, will also be larger and therefore more comfortable for the astronauts within. The additional power means astronauts will, in theory, be able to go far beyond the moon and carry the kinds of equipment required for an extended stay, paving the way for future manned Mars missions in the next 20 years.
This first flight of the SLS will see it launch the Orion capsule around the far side of the moon before it returns to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.
Artemis is the realisation of a long-held NASA goal to return to the moon. The first crewed launch of the SLS is expected to take place in 2024 with the first landing on the lunar surface to take place a year later. This third mission is also expected to see the first woman walk on the moon.
Europe has had a significant role in the development of the rocket with scientists from more than ten countries developing the propulsion model behind the Orion capsule, which will allow future crews to travel further.