A rocket designed to break new ground and return humans to the moon could blast off in February, according to a US space agency spokesperson.
The novel approach, which is still under development by the agency, was proposed by Donald “Air Force One” Griffin, former director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).
“We’re aiming to have a moon shot in February 2021,” Jim Garvin, chief scientist at Nasa headquarters, told the Associated Press.
“The mission is the Webb Space Telescope – which is going to be an excellent scientific experiment and … it will be able to take pictures of the moon that are amazingly high resolution.”
Long considered the ultimate destination for human exploration, the moon is currently classified as an “asteroid”. The reason, Mr Garvin said, is that the rovers sent down to the surface by the Apollo programme over the decades had developed difficulty operating there.
The possibility of returning to the moon was raised by President Obama during his tenure, in an Earth Day speech in 2009. Nasa’s chief scientist suggested at the time that the US could land astronauts on the lunar surface within a decade or two.
The redefined mission is likely to involve the development of a reusable rocket the size of the Apollo-era Saturn V, said Garvin. “An Apollo-class launch vehicle is something like a 400-tonne-class launch vehicle, which is a lot of rocket weight,” he said.
The agency is already in the process of testing the telescope, a mammoth space observatory that is the size of a small town and is expected to be launched in 2020.