NASA’s next attempt to launch its new mega-rocket on a test flight to the Moon could lift off by September 23, but only if the agency fixes a leak and receives a critical waiver from US Space. Strength.
Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said today (September 8) that the launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission – the launch of its giant rocket Space Launch System (SLS ) – could take off on September 23 or 27. These launch dates are dependent on a number of requirements, including NASA obtaining a waiver to extend the time required to check the batteries of the Flight Termination System (FTS) of the SLS, which is designed to destroy the rocket if it veers off course during launch.
The US Space Force, which oversees the eastern range used for rocket launches in Florida, requires NASA to test the FTS every 25 days, a process that requires the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) rocket to leave the launch pad and return to its hangar. Extending that deadline could allow NASA to avoid weeks of additional delay that would push back the launch of Artemis 1 to October.
Free said Artemis 1 mission officials submitted a waiver request to Eastern Range this week. “Having met with us several times, they’ve been very gracious and understood what we’re trying to do,” he said on a conference call today. “Our job is to meet their requirements. It’s their lineup. And it’s our job to comply with their requirements.”
Free did not disclose the length of an extension NASA is seeking. The agency had already obtained such an FTS waiver, pushing the limit from 20 to 25 days.
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Launch Waivers and Fuel Leaks
Artemis 1 is the first mission of NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2025. It is an uncrewed flight that will test the SLS mega-rocket and its Orion spacecraft to verify that both are ready to fly astronauts. The first crewed Artemis mission, Artemis 2, will fly astronauts around the moon in 2024, with the Artemis 3 crewed landing to follow a year later. It all hinges on a successful test flight of Artemis 1.
Even with the FTS test waiver, NASA has its hands full trying to prepare Artemis 1 for what will be its third launch attempt. NASA first attempted to launch the mission on August 29, but pulled out due to an engine cooling problem attributed to a bad sensor. A persistent liquid hydrogen leak that beat three repair attempts led to the September 3 launch scrub.
NASA is to fix this leak by replacing a gasket around an 8-inch (20 centimeter) fuel line on the SLS base thruster. The agency is also working on a smaller fuel connector that experienced a different leak on August 29. That work continues this week at Pad 39B launch site of the Artemis 1 rocket at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A smoother, gentler approach to refueling
The Artemis 1 SLS rocket must then pass a refueling test to check if the seal repair worked. That test is currently scheduled for Sept. 17 at the earliest, but the schedule is tight, NASA Ground Exploration Systems Manager Mike Bolger said at today’s press conference.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see it slip for a day or two,” Bolger said. Even if that slips by a few days, NASA would still be able to pursue the September 23 or September 27 windows, he added.
NASA has not confirmed whether an “inadvertent” hand control that briefly over-pressurized the hydrogen line caused the leak, but the agency is investigating the incident. Bolger said new manual processes replaced automated ones on the second attempt and the launch team could have used more time to practice them.
“So we haven’t, as a management team, put our operators in the best possible place,” Bolger said. During the September 17 refueling test, NASA will test a slower, “softer, gentler” process that should avoid such occurrences.
“We all own the process,” Free added. “As far as I’m concerned, everyone’s finger was on that switch.”
Fueling the Artemis 1 SLS rocket with its 736,000 gallons (2.79 million liters) of super cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant has been a challenge for NASA. Prior to the two launch attempts, the agency conducted four trials, called a “wetsuit rehearsal,” but failed to tick all the boxes it wanted during one of them.
The next refueling test will be used to verify that the leak repairs worked, Bolger said.
“This is the first time we’ve operated this vehicle,” Free said, adding that NASA has encountered refueling issues during its Space Shuttle and Apollo programs. “There are challenges when you try to do that.”
Finally, NASA must integrate the launch of Artemis 1 when its means of communication Deep Space Network can support lunar flight.
NASA’s DART asteroid probe is set to crash into a small asteroid on September 26 and will need to use the Deep Space Network to relay its findings to scientists on Earth. NASA’s Artemis 1 launch dates of Sept. 23 and 27 should avoid any conflict with that mission, Free said.
Meanwhile, SpaceX plans to launch its next NASA astronaut crew mission, called Crew-5, to the International Space Station on October 3. It’s another constraint for when Artemis 1 can fly, Free said.
NASA technically has launch windows for Artemis 1 that run from September 16 to October 4, and then again from October 17 to October 31, with a few blackout days in each window.
If NASA is able to go ahead with a Sept. 23 launch for Artemis 1, liftoff would be scheduled for 6:47 a.m. EDT (10:47 a.m. GMT) during a 120-minute window. The mission would return to Earth on October 18.
A Sept. 27 launch for Artemis 1 would lift off at 11:37 a.m. EDT (1537 GMT) at the start of a 70-minute window. A launch that day would lead to a return to Earth on Nov. 5, Free said.
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