Possible Hurricane Threatens NASA’s Artemis Moon Launch Plans

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NASA moves forward in another attempt to launch the Artemis 1 moon rocket on its leakage-delayed maiden flight Tuesday, while closely monitoring the trail of a potential hurricane that could send high winds and heavy rain to the Florida Space Coast. bring, officials said Friday.

In the meantime, the Space Force Eastern Range, which oversees all military and civilian launches from Florida, has granted a request from NASA to forgo a time-consuming inspection of the rocket’s self-destruct batteries, which requires a rollback to the missile’s vehicle. agency would have been necessary. Assembly building.

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With the waiver in hand, and with engineers saying a tank test Wednesday showed leaks in the rocket’s hydrogen supply system are manageable, it’s once again the main impediment to getting the long-delayed Artemis 1 mission off the ground.

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The Space Launch System rocket atop pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center Friday afternoon. NASA engineers say the rocket can withstand hurricane-force winds at the launch pad, but hopefully an impending storm will spare the spaceport. Still, the forecast for a launch opportunity Tuesday is 80 percent no-go.

NASA


The goal of the test flight is to send an unmanned Orion crew capsule on a long flight around the moon to clear the way for the first manned launch in 2024 and a moon landing mission in the 2025-26 timeframe.

But the road to the Space Launch System rocket’s launch has been rocky, and now the weather threatens to be further delayed.

The National Hurricane Center predicts that a storm known as Tropical Depression No. 9 will strengthen in the coming days into a major hurricane – Hermine – that will traverse western Cuba and then hit Florida’s southwest coast.

The predicted track shows the storm moving northeast across the Florida peninsula, potentially bringing tropical storm winds or higher to the Kennedy Space Center, where the SLS rocket sits atop pad 39B.

Although the $4.1 billion moon rocket won’t launch in high winds, chief engineer John Blevins said it can safely endure gusts of up to 74 knots on the trail. And while the official forecast is currently 80% “no-go” for a Tuesday launch, it doesn’t violate NASA’s safety restrictions to stay on track.

But if the forecast gets worse, engineers can return the SLS to the protection of the Vehicle Assembly Building with about three days’ notice. That’s a last resort, a move that would likely delay the rocket’s maiden flight by several more weeks.

“Our Plan A is to stay on track and launch on September 27,” said Mike Bolger, director of Exploration Ground Systems at the Kennedy Space Center. “We realize that we also really have to pay attention and think about a plan B.”

“If we went with plan B, we would need a few days to flip from our current tank test or launch configuration to do a rollback and get back into VAB protection,” added Bolger.

He said the team planned to meet Friday night to discuss the latest forecast “and we think we’ll probably make a decision by tomorrow morning or very early afternoon” on how to proceed.

“We are well on track for winds up to 74 peak knots,” Bolger said. “And for the rollback, we’re looking for a forecast of sustained winds below 40 knots. We’ll be watching closely. More information is better, and I think in the next 24 hours hopefully we’ll have some good news.” we’re sticking to our plan A.”

Tom Whitmeyer, a senior manager at NASA headquarters, downplayed the weather concerns, telling reporters, “It’s not even a storm with a name, it’s a tropical depression, number nine. It’s very early and some traces that We’ve seen going in different directions and going at different speeds and different intensities.”

But the National Hurricane Center’s forecast at 11 a.m. EDT said the system is expected to move “near or over western Cuba as a strengthening hurricane and then approach the Florida peninsula at or near high hurricane strength, with the potential for significant effects of storm surge, hurricane-force winds and heavy rainfall.”

Friday marked 190 days since the SLS rocket was first towed to pad 39B for what turned out to be the first in a frustrating series of fuel tests to resolve a variety of technical issues and repeated problems with hydrogen leaks in quick-disconnect fittings where the volatile propellant enters the base of the rocket.

After three tank test attempts, a rollback to the VAB for repair and a fourth test on June 20, the engineers towed the SLS rocket back to the VAB a second time to perform additional troubleshooting. The rocket was moved back to the pad in mid-August for a launch attempt on the 29th.

But two attempts in a row were called off due to more hydrogen problems. That prompted repairs to the launch pad to replace a suspicious seal in an 8-inch hydrogen quick coupler that leaked earlier.

During a tank test Wednesday to verify the repair, the fitting leaked again, but engineers were able to get it back to acceptable levels using lower pressures and flow rates.

The “kindler, softer” fuel technique was intended to put less stress on the hardware, and it worked. Engineers were able to fully load the rocket and successfully complete two critical tests of the core stage engine cooling system.

But NASA has yet to carry the SLS countdown into the last half-minute, and the weather aside, making it all the way to zero Tuesday could still be a challenge. Any additional leaks or other issues that may arise should be resolved in a shorter 70 minute boot period.

NASA has a backup launch opportunity on October 2, but after that, the Artemis 1 mission would likely stop until NASA launches a new crew to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. That launch is currently scheduled for October 3, weather permitting.

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