NASA is just days away from a key test of its new mega-rocket that could boost or destroy the space agency’s chances of launching its Artemis 1 mission to the moon next week.
The fueling test, which NASA will conduct on Wednesday (Sept. 21), will test repairs to two hydrogen leaks on a rocket called the Space Launch System, as well as a new, slower way to fuel the 32-story booster at Kennedy Space Center Site 389A in Florida. If all goes well, NASA will make a third attempt to launch an Artemis 1 SLS rocket to the Moon on September 27 after two false starts in recent weeks.
“We’re not just preparing for launch on September 27, we’re preparing for the future of this spacecraft,” Tom Whitmeyer, NASA’s deputy assistant administrator for general exploration systems development, told reporters on a teleconference Monday. (September 19). “That’s why we put in the time and effort to make sure we understand the car.”
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NASA’s Artemis 1 fueling test comes after two failed attempts to launch the Artemis 1 mission — the first uncrewed test flight of an SLS rocket with its Orion capsule — on August 1. September 29 and 3, first due to an engine temperature problem related to a faulty sensor, and then due to a large hydrogen fuel leak. The space agency has since repaired the 8-inch (20 cm) hydrogen line and a smaller 4-inch (10 cm) line.
The 8″ line was of particular concern due to a significant leak during the 3 September launch attempt. The engineers replaced the soft seals on both lines and even found a tiny dent in the seal of the larger line, which may or may not have been caused by a piece of debris (although no debris was found on the launch pad). The tiny depression was just under 0.01 inches (0.002 cm) long, according to NASA.
“Now that doesn’t sound like much, but we’re dealing with hydrogen, the smallest particle on the atomic diagram,” Mike Sarafin, NASA Artemis 1 mission director, said on a teleconference. “This allows for a pressurized gas leak.”
To make things easier on the SLS fuel lines, NASA will try to do what it calls a “more gentle” liquid hydrogen loading process during testing this week. This process will fuel the rocket about 30 minutes slower than normal to reduce stress on fuel lines and pressurized seals. (Typically, it takes up to four hours to refuel a rocket.)
“Ultimately, we eliminated everything we could think of, and in about 36 or 48 hours we will know how effective these measures are,” said John Blevins, NASA chief engineer for SLS at the NASA Space Flight Center. Marshall in Huntsville, Alabama. , told reporters.
The agency also automated all but five manual commands for the refueling process and added training for the launch team to avoid accidental overpressure in the fuel line, as in the incident that occurred during the September 3 attempt.
During the Artemis 1 fueling test on Wednesday, NASA will fill the rocket’s core and upper stages with 736,000 gallons (3.3 million liters) of supercooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen needed for launch. This is not a launch dress rehearsal (the Artemis 1 Orion space capsule and two solid rocket boosters will not operate), NASA officials said, but is intended to test the fuel leaks and the new refueling process.
Renunciation of cosmic forces is still necessary
Even if the fueling test is successful, it is not certain that NASA will be able to launch on September 27th.
The space agency is currently seeking a U.S. Space Force waiver for the SLS rocket flight termination system, which has batteries that need to be checked every 25 days to make sure they are working properly. The flight abort system is a safety device designed to detonate the SLS missile to protect people if it veers off course. Making sure it’s working properly is required by the US Space Force, which monitors the Eastern Rocket Launch Range off the coast of Florida. The 25 day period for Artemis 1 ended on September 6th.
You can only double-check the abort system in the huge hangar of the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the SLS was assembled. To do this, NASA would have had to roll the 322-foot (98 meters) rocket off the launch pad, potentially adding several more weeks of delays.
“Right now we are still in the process of technical negotiations with Range,” said Whitmyer. “It was very productive and collaborative.” NASA has not yet received any decision on whether it will be granted a waiver and does not expect it to be notified prior to the September 21 fuel test.
If the Artemis 1 fueling test is successful and NASA receives the waiver it is seeking from the Space Force, its next launch attempt will be scheduled for September 27 at 11:37 AM EDT (15:37 GMT). NASA will have a 70 minute window to launch the mission.
There is the possibility of a fallback launch date of October 2, Sarafin said, but that is also dependent on receiving a waiver from the Space Force and the health of the Artemis 1 launch system.
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