NASA has announced that it is aiming to launch an uncrewed lunar mission in February next year, the first step in America's plan to return humans to the Moon.
The agency had initially hoped to launch the test flight by the end of this year, with astronauts set to walk on the Moon by 2024.
It achieved a major milestone last Wednesday when it stacked the Orion crew capsule atop its Space Launch System megarocket.
The huge spacecraft now stands 322 feet (98 meters) tall inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After further tests, it will be wheeled out to the launchpad for a "wet dress rehearsal" in January.
That involves the full launch team following exact launch day procedures by testing and fuelling the rocket in a real-life countdown.
The first window for the lunar launch opening is in February, officials told reporters on a call on Friday.
"The February launch period opens on the 12th and our last opportunity in February is on the 27th," said Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager. The next windows are in March and April.
Nasa’s Artemis lunar mission – key facts
Nasa’s Artemis lunar mission – key facts
- Nasa has pledged to land man on the Moon in 2024
- The mission, dubbed Artemis, will mark the first time astronauts have set foot on the lunar surface since 1972
- A giant Nasa rocket dubbed the Space Launch System will carry astronauts beyond Earth's atmosphere
- Once at the Moon, two astronauts will descend to the surface from an orbiting crew capsule called Orion
- Nasa has pledged that one of the landing crew will be female, marking the first time a woman has set foot on the Moon
- The pair would land on the lunar south pole, where vast reserves of frozen water could be tapped for future explorers
- They will board the Orion capsule once more for the 250,000-mile trip back to Earth
- Nasa has a mountain of technical challenges to overcome before Artemis gets the green light
- It's still not clear if everything will be ready in time for the ambitious 2024 launch date
- Nasa has said that the Moon will serve as a critical training ground for Mars expeditions, perhaps in the 2030s
These potential launch periods are dependent on orbital mechanics and the relative position of the Earth with respect to the Moon. The mission duration is expected to be four to six weeks.
NASA will also deploy small satellites, known as CubeSats, to perform experiments and technology demonstrations.
Artemis 2 is then scheduled for 2023 and Artemis 3 for the following year, when humans will walk on the Moon for the first time since 1972. Both missions are now likely to be pushed back, however.
NASA says the moonwalkers will include the first woman and first person of colour to make the trip.
The space agency is seeking to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon as well as use the lessons it learns to plan a crewed trip to Mars in the 2030s.
Orion first flew into space in 2014, launched by a Delta IV rocket, making two circumnavigations of Earth and testing its heat shield on re-entry into the atmosphere.
But this time, NASA's Sarafin said, the capsule will travel much faster and the temperature will be much higher when it returns from the Moon.
Artemis 1 has several objectives: To demonstrate Orion's ability to return from the Moon and operate in deep space where it is "much colder than in low Earth orbit," and to successfully recover the spacecraft, he added.
The mission also plans to study radiation and take selfies of the capsule with the Moon in the background.
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