Science & Technology

NASA ‘encouraged’ by tanking test for SLS moon rocket, but launch plan is still in flux

NASA says it achieved all its objectives during today’s launch-pad rehearsal for fueling up its giant Space Launch System rocket for an uncrewed round-the-moon mission known as Artemis 1 — but will have to review the data, check the weather and get final approvals before going ahead with plans for a liftoff next Tuesday.

The test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida was meant to verify that hydrogen fuel leaks encountered during the past month’s launch attempts were fixed. A hydrogen leak did crop up today during the process of filling the SLS rocket’s tanks with super-cooled propellants. “Engineers were able to troubleshoot the issue and proceed with the planned activities,” NASA said afterward.

In the wake of the earlier launch scrubs, engineers replaced the suspect seals in the fueling system. Mission managers also changed the fuel-loading procedure to take what they called a “kinder, gentler” approach — and they relaxed their rules for today’s test. Concentrations of hydrogen in the air surrounding the rocket were allowed to exceed the 4% limit that was previously in place. NASA launch commentator Derrol Nail said that the leak rate surpassed 5% at one point, but tapered back down to less than 4%.

“If we were in terminal count, which is what this was testing, it would have been a violation and stopped the count,” Nail explained during today’s webcast. “But for the ground rules that were set for today, they were within those.”

Nail said the launch team “is looking forward to getting back that data and taking a close look at it.”

Launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson put a positive spin on the test’s outcome. “All of the objectives that we set out to do, we were able to accomplish today,” she said.

Blackwell-Thompson said mission managers will assess the data as part of the process of determining whether to go forward with the scheduled launch attempt on Sept. 27. “I am extremely encouraged by the test today,” she said.

A couple of other factors could affect the schedule. The scheduling procedures currently in place would require bringing the rocket back to NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building to switch out batteries in the flight termination system, but NASA is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Space Force, which manages the Eastern Range.

Weather is also a potential concern: A tropical disturbance known as Invest 98L is currently forming in the Atlantic Ocean and could bring strong storms to Florida next week. If NASA had to pass up the Sept. 27 opportunity due to weather, the next chance for launch would come on Oct. 2.

The inaugural launch of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA, is just the beginning of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission. The SLS will send an uncrewed Orion capsule on a looping, weeks-long trip around the moon and back. Sensors hooked up to three mannequins will collect data about radiation exposure, temperature and other environmental factors.

Orion will also be carrying an experimental Alexa-style voice assistant — created by Amazon in partnership with NASA, Lockheed Martin and Cisco — that could be used on future crewed missions.

If Artemis 1 is successful, that would set the stage for a crewed round-the-moon mission known as Artemis 2 in 2024, and then an Artemis 3 moon landing that could happen as early as 2025.

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