NASA ‘encouraged’ by tank test for SLS moon rocket, but launch plan still in flux

NASA ‘encouraged’ by tank test for SLS moon rocket, but launch plan still in flux

Launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson (left) and launch crew members Wes Mosedale and Jeremy Graeber monitor data inside Shot Room 1 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a tank test.  (NASA Photo/Kim Shiflett)

Launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson (left) and launch crew members Wes Mosedale and Jeremy Graeber monitor data inside Shot Room 1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a tank test. (NASA Photo/Kim Shiflett)

NASA says it achieved all of its objectives during today’s launch pad exercise to fuel its massive Space Launch System rocket for an uncrewed space mission called Artemis 1 – but it will have to review the details, check the weather and getting final approval before proceeding with plans for promotion next Tuesday.

The test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida was meant to verify that a hydrogen fuel leak that developed during last month’s launch efforts had been fixed. A hydrogen leak surfaced today during the process of filling the SLS rocket’s tanks with supercooled propellants. “The engineers were able to resolve the problem and proceed with the planned activities,” NASA said later.

After the earlier launch scrub, engineers replaced the suspected seals in the fueling system. Mission managers also changed the fuel loading procedure to adopt a “leaner, softer” approach – and loosened their rules for today’s test. Hydrogen concentrations in the air around the rocket were allowed to exceed the 4% limit previously in place. NASA launch commentator Derrol Nail said the leak rate exceeded 5% at one point, but has since tapered back to less than 4%.

“If we were in the terminal count, which is what was being tested, there would be a violation and the count would be stopped,” Nail explained during today’s webcast. “But in terms of the ground rules that were set for today, they were within those.”

Nail said the launch team is “looking forward to getting that data back and looking closely at it.”

Launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson put a positive spin on the test result. “All the objectives we had to do, we were able to achieve today,” she said.

Blackwell-Thompson said mission managers will evaluate the data as part of the process to decide whether to proceed with the launch attempt scheduled for Sept. 27. “I’m very motivated by the test today,” she said.

A few other factors could affect the schedule. Current scheduling procedures would require the rocket to be returned to NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building to move batteries out in the flight termination system, but NASA is seeking a waiver from US Space, which manages the Range the East.

The weather is also a potential concern: A tropical disturbance known as Invest 98L is currently forming in the Atlantic Ocean and could bring strong storms to Florida next week. If NASA was going to pass on the 27th of September due to the weather, the next chance for a launch would be on the 2nd of October.

The inaugural launch of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA, is just the beginning of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission. The SLS will launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on a one-week looping trip around the moon and back. Sensors with up to three modules will collect data on radiation exposure, temperature and other environmental factors.

Orion will also carry an experimental Alexa-style voice assistant – created by Amazon in partnership with NASA, Lockheed Martin and Cisco – that could be used on future crewed missions.

If Artemis 1 is successful, that would set the stage for a crewed mission around the moon called Artemis 2 in 2024, followed by an Artemis 3 lunar landing that could happen as early as 2025.

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