The much-anticipated Artemis 1 Moon mission launch had to be postponed at the 11th hour on Monday, after Nasa engineers were unable to resolve an issue on one of the rocket's four engines. Depending on how testing goes in the intervening period, the next launch has been scheduled for Friday, and another for next Monday. Despite disappointment that the launch did not take place as scheduled, the ambition and importance of Artemis 1 continues.
One of the main reasons for the exciting build-up to Nasa's latest mission over the past few days was the "short" distance of 450,616-kilometre that Artemis 1 was due to travel on Monday.
For many years now, the organisation's priority has been to explore more distant places. The first batch of images from the $10 billion James Webb telescope, a project that Nasa pursued with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, were released last week. It is currently around 1.5 million km from Earth. The pictures are astonishing. They show an enormous technicolour mosaic collectively known as Epoch 1, made up of 690 frames taken with the telescope’s infrared camera.
Now, after a period of less attention largely due to the costs involved, the closer target of the Moon is back on the agenda. Artemis 1 has no crew, and it is a test flight that engineers will be monitoring closely when it attempts to launch the Orion spacecraft around the Moon later this week. It is hoped that this will eventually lead to astronauts returning to the Moon's surface, after a 50-year hiatus.
The programme has follow-up missions, too. If it succeeds, Nasa can hope to stick to an ambitious calendar. Artemis 2, which will be a crewed flight around the Moon, could take place in 2024. Artemis 3, a lunar landing mission, has been delayed until 2025. If all of these are successful, next stop could be Mars, albeit in some time.
The programme's effects will be felt on Earth, too. Inclusion is one. Its web page says it will "land the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon". A moral mission in one sense, it is also hugely strategic. The site also says "economic opportunity" is a goal: "Artemis missions enable a growing lunar economy by fuelling new industries, supporting job growth, and furthering the demand for a skilled workforce."
A vibrant space industry is already a boon for economies. As satellite technology expands, and ever more outlandish ambitions are pursued, the room for growth is endless. Albeit hugely challenging, space mining, which would give the world access to rare minerals crucial for advanced industry and the green transition, is an enormous business and strategic priority. American astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson says the first trillionaires will be "those who mine asteroids".
Whether for mystery, science, money or strategy, space is clearly paying dividends in 2022. That is why this year is such an exciting one for enthusiasts. Both domains, near and far, are getting the attention they deserve.
Yesterday's mission may have been postponed by a few days. But, even though we do not yet know the extent of what such missions will yield, it will be astonishing when we do find out. It might also be game-changing to life on Earth and help secure the future of humanity. That is the wonderful variety of space.