NASA cancels Artemis 1 rocket launch to the Moon due to engine cooling problem

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida. — An engine cooling problem for NASA’s new giant deep-space rocket forced the agency to cancel a long-awaited launch vehicle debut early Monday (August 29).

NASA was basically refueling its first Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket to launch the Artemis 1 lunar mission on Monday when launch controllers failed to cool one of its four main engines to the temperatures needed to handle its supercold fuel. The issue has stalled plans to launch the SLS rocket and its uncrewed Orion spacecraft on an ambitious 42-day test flight around the moon. Launch was scheduled for 8:33 am EST (12:33 GMT).

Cooling the SLS rocket’s engines before pumping cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen through them is a mandatory step before rocket launch, according to NASA officials. While three engines passed this test, engine #3 failed despite troubleshooting efforts.

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An early morning view of the Artemis 1 stack at the launch pad on August 1st. 29, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/Joel Kouski)

“Launch controllers condition the engines by pressurizing the main stage tanks to bleed some of the cryogenic propellant into the engines to bring them up to the proper temperature range for their launch,” NASA officials said in a statement. “Engine 3 is improperly conditioned during bleeding and engineers are troubleshooting.”

All four of these engines were used in NASA’s Space Shuttle Reusable Program.

According to NASA spokesman Darrol Neil, the condition of the engine was not something the team was able to test during the “wet dress rehearsal” process that concluded in June.

“This is something they wanted to test during Wet Dress 4 but couldn’t,” said Neil. “So this was the first opportunity for the team to see this live in action. According to the engineers, this is a particularly difficult problem, even when you need to set this temperature.”

The No. 3 engine conditioning issue arose as NASA worked on a series of failures during the countdown, including a liquid hydrogen leak early in the refueling process and a possible crack in a portion of the core booster known as the tank flange that connects the Giant Liquid Hydrogen and Liquid Hydrogen Reservoirs. SLS oxygen. The tanks can hold 730,000 gallons (3.3 million liters) of fuel.

“Flanges are connecting joints that function like a seam on a shirt, attached to the top and bottom of an intermediate tank so that two tanks can be attached to it,” NASA said in a statement.

NASA engineers discovered that the crack was actually in the insulating foam on the flange, and not in the metal structure of the rocket. “The resulting ice is essentially air cooled by the reservoir that enters a crack in the foam, not the reservoir itself,” Nail said.

Neil added that NASA staff saw similar cracks in the foam when it was used on the space shuttles before they retired in 2011.

Problems with the No. 3 engine and a dangerous crack followed concerns about a liquid hydrogen leak in the rocket. The leak during the refueling process was similar to the one that occurred during the SLS refueling test earlier this year, Nail noted. But NASA officials were slow to judge.

“While a similar problem was found at a previous wetsuit rehearsal, it may not necessarily be the same cause,” NASA officials wrote in a subsequent update. (will open in a new tab).

NASA stopped and restarted the supply of liquid hydrogen to the tank in an attempt to check for a leak, and even proceeded to fuel the rocket’s 322-foot (98-meter) upper stage while engineers worked on the problem.

Even before fueling the SLS rocket, NASA ran into trouble during Monday’s launch countdown. Sea storms and lightning delayed the fueling of the SLS rocket by almost an hour, forcing launch controllers to work to catch up.

Because NASA is unable to launch today, the agency may try for at least two back-up days to launch Artemis 1 on its mission to the moon. If the agency resolves the problem with engine number 3, it may try to start it again on Friday (September 2) or September 5, weather permitting. If NASA cannot launch by September 5, its next launch attempt will likely be in October, according to mission leaders. Launch options are limited by, among other things, the stage of the moon and the light conditions at re-entry.

“The earliest opportunity, depending on what happens with this engine bleed, will be September 2nd,” Neil said. “However, we will wait for the determination that the plan should move forward.”

Artemis 1 will send an uncrewed Orion capsule to and from lunar orbit on a mission that will take six weeks from launch to splashdown. This will be the first flight of the long-delayed SLS and the second for Orion, which made a short flight into Earth orbit back in 2014.

Artemis 1 will also be the first mission of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to establish a long-term sustainable human presence on and around the Moon. If all goes well with Artemis 1, NASA can begin preparations for Artemis 2, which will send astronauts on a journey around the moon.

NASA is targeting 2024 for the launch of Artemis 2 and 2025 or 2026 for Artemis 3, which will land astronauts on the moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

Editor’s Note: Keep an eye on our Artemis 1 Mission Updates page for the latest news on the Artemis 1 mission. Spaceflight editor Mike Wall contributed to this report from San Francisco.

Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@ or follow him @tariqjmalik (will open in a new tab). Follow us @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab)facebook (will open in a new tab) and instagram (will open in a new tab).

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