NASA and SpaceX test docking of the Starship lunar module

In intensive tests carried out over 10 days at NASA's Johnson Space Center, the agency and SpaceX reached an important milestone for future astronaut missions to the Moon.

Let's understand:

  • SpaceX's Starship megarocket will be used as a landing module on the Moon for the Artemis 3 mission, scheduled for 2026;
  • This will be the first mission to land humans on the Moon since 1972;
  • A team of four astronauts will be launched aboard the Orion capsule by NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle complex;
  • In orbit around the Moon, the Orion capsule must then dock with the Starship to transfer the crew (on arrival and departure).

NASA and SpaceX perform more than 200 docking tests

This week, engineers simulated more than 200 possible docking scenarios between Starship and Orion. In a statement, NASA said that these tests are crucial to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the system that will take astronauts to the Moon on the Artemis 3 mission, scheduled to take place in 2026.

The Artemis 3 mission involves two essential spacecraft: the Orion capsule, which will take astronauts into lunar orbit, and the Starship lander, which will transport them to the Moon's south pole. NASA seeks to establish a permanent settlement in this region to take advantage of resources such as potential water ice, useful for the most varied needs of the mission.

The tests evaluated Starship's ability to play the role of active docking, being a “pursuer” of Orion's docking system. The goal was to ensure that SpaceX's soft capture system could integrate with Orion efficiently. The results of these tests, using full-scale hardware from each of the spacecraft, validate computer models of the lunar module's docking system.

Artist's representation of SpaceX's Starship landing module arriving at the Moon. Credit: SpaceX

It is important to highlight that, although Starship has not yet reached Earth orbit, its lunar docking system is based on the successful Dragon 2 docking system, used in missions to the International Space Station (ISS). In addition to the Artemis 3 mission, Starship is scheduled for future docking missions with NASA's Gateway space station.

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SpaceX won NASA's bid to develop the Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis program, which aims to take a coalition of nations to the lunar surface. Despite protests from competitors, SpaceX continued to lead the development of the lunar landing system.

The company faced challenges in its two test flights, but says it is committed to overcoming them. Recently, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigation into the second explosive launch, which took place in November, was closed, and SpaceX is working on the launch license for the next attempt.

Artist's representation of SpaceX's Starship landing module on the surface of the Moon. Credit: SpaceX

The schedule for the Artemis missions has been adjusted, with Artemis 3 now scheduled to land a year later than initially planned. SpaceX's progress has been monitored by NASA, and to date, more than 30 specific hardware-related milestones have been completed, covering areas such as power generation, guidance systems development, propulsion and life support.

SpaceX's continued advancement is vital for NASA, which is awaiting a series of successful launches before authorizing the Artemis 3 mission. The commitment and progress of Elon Musk's company are crucial elements for the success of future explorations lunar moons with astronauts.

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