The launch of Nasa’s new Artemis I Moon rocket is facing a potentially lengthy delay after a second postponement.
Controllers tried and failed again on Saturday to get the Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle to lift off. A fuel leak thwarted their plans. Engineers want to inspect the rocket now, and any repairs may take place in the workshop rather than on the launch pad. The entire procedure is almost certain to result in a several-week delay.
That means we won’t see a third launch attempt until at least mid-October. The SLS is the most powerful rocket ever developed by NASA, and it is intended to return astronauts and their equipment to the Moon after a 50-year absence.
Much of the enormous thrust comes from burning almost three million liters of super-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen in four big engines on the vehicle’s underside.
But when controllers sent the command early on Saturday morning to fill the rocket’s hydrogen tank, an alarm went off, indicating there was a leak.
The source of the problem was discovered to be the connection where the hydrogen was being pumped into the vehicle.
Controllers attempted several fixes, including allowing the hardware to warm up for short periods of time to reset the seal, but none were successful.
Although the Artemis I mission is unmanned, Nasa’s Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin stated that the rocket’s future role in human spaceflight necessitated extreme caution in its operation.
“This is an incredibly hard business. This is an initial test flight of this vehicle. As was said: we’re going to fly when we’re ready. And as part of this initial test flight, we’re learning about the vehicle and how to operate it, ” he told reporters.
Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson agreed, saying, “I look at this as part of our space programme, and safety is at the top of the list.”
The SLS’s leaking seal could possibly be repaired on the launch pad. However, batteries in the termination system are used to destroy the rocket in the event of a failed launch that will necessitate recertification beyond this week, which can only be done in the workshop.
Rolling the vehicle back to the engineering building eliminates the possibility of a third lift-off attempt before mid-October.
“We have to roll back in order to test our batteries and change out the batteries,” said Jim Free, Nasa’s associate administrator for exploration systems development.
Saturday’s attempt to launch the SLS rocket was scheduled to begin at 14:17 local time and last two hours (19:17 BST; 18:17 GMT).
The goal of the 100m-tall vehicle is to launch a human-rated capsule called Orion toward the Moon, something that hasn’t happened since Project Apollo ended in 1972.
Nasa attempted to launch the rocket for the first time on Monday. When controllers couldn’t be sure the four big engines at the core-base stages were at the proper operating temperature, they called off the attempt.
Unfortunately, further investigation revealed that a sensor was almost certainly producing inaccurate readings. The power units were almost certainly in perfect condition to take off.
When the SLS escapes, it will be a spectacular sight.
“It’s going to be shuttle on steroids,'” said Doug Hurley, the pilot on the final shuttle mission in 2011.
The former astronaut now works for Northrop Grumman, which manufactures the SLS’s large white solid boosters.
“What I always thought was cool about shuttle launches was that you could see it lift off and it was well clear of the tower before you heard anything, and then it was even longer before you felt it,” he explained.
“SLS is similar to a shuttle in terms of thrust and weight. The Saturn V rocket used by Apollo was vastly different. It lumbered clear of the pad, which I never saw in person. Shuttle appeared to be clear in an instant, almost as soon as the boosters were lit. SLS should be the same, right? “He told the media.