Fuel leak could delay first launch of NASA’s Artemis lunar rocket until October


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CAPE CANAVERAL — For the second time in a week, NASA aborted a launch attempt for its giant next-generation rocket on Saturday, citing a stubborn fuel leak that the space agency says could delay its first moon mission to Mars Artemis program of at least several weeks.

Preflight operations were canceled for the day approximately three hours before the targeted 2:17 p.m. EDT (6:17 p.m. GMT) liftoff time of the 32-stage Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and its Orion capsule from Cap Canaveral, Florida.

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The uncrewed test flight, aimed at launching the capsule to the moon and back, was to mark the maiden voyage of the SLS and Orion half a century after Apollo’s last lunar mission, precursor to the Artemis program.

The countdown was called off after Kennedy Space Center technicians repeatedly tried to fix a “big” leak of supercooled liquid hydrogen propellant being pumped into the rocket’s core stage fuel tanks, the rocket said. agency officials.

Monday’s first launch attempt was also foiled by technical issues, including another leaky fuel line, a faulty temperature sensor and cracks found in the foam insulation.

Mission leaders made a second launch attempt on Saturday once previous issues were resolved to their satisfaction. NASA had reserved another backup launch time, Monday or Tuesday, in case a third test was needed.

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But after a review of data from the latest difficulties, NASA concluded that the hydrogen leak was too tricky and was taking too long to complete troubleshooting and repair the launch pad before the current launch period allotted to it expired. the mission on Tuesday.

The delay means the first opportunity to try flying the rocket again would come during the next launch window which will run from September 19-30, or a later October window, a source said. NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free to reporters during a late afternoon briefing. .

He said the postponement would also involve rolling the spacecraft off the launch pad and back to its assembly building at some point, under space center “scope” rules limiting how long a rocket can stay at the tower before takeoff.

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NASA chief Bill Nelson said earlier today that a rollback would postpone the next launch attempt until at least mid-October, in part to avoid a scheduling conflict with the next crew of the International Space Station which was to be launched earlier this month.

Launch-day delays and technical problems are not uncommon in the space sector, especially for new rockets such as NASA’s Space Launch System, a complex vehicle with a set of pre-launch procedures that does not have not yet been fully tested and rehearsed by engineers without a hitch.

On average, the odds of rubbing a launch on any given day for any reason, including bad weather, are about one in three.

“It’s part of our space program – get ready for the scrubs,” Nelson said on NASA TV.

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The last-minute setbacks on the launch pad come at the end of a decade-plus development program, with years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns under the respective SLS and Orion contracts. of NASA with Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin. Corp.

MOON TO MARS

In addition to its technical challenges, Artemis I marks a major turning point for NASA’s post-Apollo human spaceflight program, after decades focused on low Earth orbit with space shuttles and the International Space Station.

Named after the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister in ancient Greek mythology, Artemis aims to get astronauts back to the moon’s surface as soon as 2025, although many experts believe that deadline is likely to slip.

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Twelve astronauts walked on the moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the only spaceflights to still place humans on the lunar surface. But Apollo, born out of the US-Soviet space race during the Cold War, was less science-driven than Artemis.

The new moon program has enlisted commercial partners such as SpaceX and space agencies from Europe, Canada and Japan to eventually establish a long-term lunar operating base as a springboard to even more ambitious human journeys to Mars. .

The launch of the SLS-Orion spacecraft is a key first step. Its maiden voyage is meant to put the 5.75 million pound vehicle through its paces in a rigorous test flight pushing its design limits and aiming to prove the spacecraft is fit to fly astronauts.

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If the mission is successful, a crewed flight of Artemis II around the moon could take place as soon as 2024, followed in a few years by the first lunar landing of the program of astronauts, including a woman, with Artemis III.

Considered the most powerful and complex rocket in the world, the SLS represents the largest new vertical launch system NASA has built since the Apollo-era Saturn V.

Although no humans are on board, Orion will carry a simulated crew of three – one male and two female mannequins – equipped with sensors to measure radiation levels and other stresses that real astronauts would experience.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Frances Kerry, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

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