NASA launches its most powerful rocket yet, with 2020 return to the moon in sight

NASA plans to launch its first spacecraft to reach the moon since 1972 in February, officials said, amid growing pressure for the space agency to focus on its future and not just look backward.

The planned mission, called Space Launch System or SLS, will be NASA’s most powerful rocket to date, capable of sending a spacecraft to the moon. It could enable human exploration to Mars by the 2030s, according to NASA, though it is still a long way from that goal.

Space agency officials have grappled with cost overruns in recent years, and it is also struggling to keep up with a growing competition to launch payloads to the ISS. This summer, NASA plans to launch at least six of a proposed 13 missions to the ISS that were included in the 2019 budget request.

According to a report in The Verge, the problems with the program, that have included technical problems with an engine made by ATK and the loss of its Titan 4 rocket, prompted NASA to choose a different path, going with the SLS program. An official from NASA told The Verge: “We have always been committed to SLS, a primary core program for deep space exploration,” he said. “However, we’re not wedded to a particular rocket class.”

While NASA announced the launch date, it declined to specify the target orbit or where it would eventually land.

The plan includes two launches, including the first time the SLS rocket will be fired into space — a preliminary “shakedown mission,” or SVM, followed by the first test flight, which is expected to occur around mid-February, 2019.

“NASA’s SLS rocket program, which will be the heaviest rocket to date to reach the moon, is only the first of many steps the agency plans to take over the next three years in putting America back on the path to have a crewed journey to Mars in the 2030s,” Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Exploration Directorate, said in a statement.

This commitment is despite increased attention on the so-called “Blue Moon,” which researchers say may be “the first scientifically useful” presence in space for 40,000 years. “We have the best estimate of the presence of ice around the poles at a really, really, really shallow depth, maybe deeper than an ice cave on Earth,” wrote David Morrison, chief scientist for the Earth and Planetary Sciences Division at NASA Headquarters, in The Verge.

According to The Verge, researchers are also investigating whether our moon will change colors as it ages, with sunny days rapidly turning into dusty nights.

Read the full story at The Verge.

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