NASA pushes back third Artemis I mission launch attempt

Brian Cox outlines goals of NASA's Artemis 1 mission launch

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NASA has now made two tries at getting the Artemis I mission off of the ground — the first on August 29 and the second on September 3. The initial launch attempt was scrubbed after it appeared that one of the rocket’s four main engines was too hot during engine bleed tests. This issue, however, was later traced to a misleading reading from a “bad sensor”. A persistent leak in the hydrogen fuel line, meanwhile, brought the second go to a halt, despite engineers trying three times to troubleshoot the problem.

In the wake of the second aborted launch attempt, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said that the so-called scrubbings were just “part of the space business”.

He explained: “It’s something I’m accustomed to. On my flight, which was [Robert] Gibson and Charlie Bolden’s flight [of the space shuttle Columbia] way back [in] 1986, we scrubbed four times!

“We were delayed over the better part of a month, but the fifth try was an almost-flawless six-day mission.”

To date, the Artemis I mission has been postponed by nearly two-and-a-half weeks. There had been hope that the SLS rocket might be able to blast off on its maiden flight sooner than is now planned.

Last Thursday, in fact, NASA associate administrator Jim Free announced that September 23 was also being eyed up as a possible launch date.

NASA has announced the aim of conducting a so-called “cryogenic demonstration test” — to show that they can successfully fuel the SLS rocket with liquid oxygen and hydrogen — no earlier than next Wednesday, September 21.

The launch will then go ahead on September 27, assuming that the fuelling test does prove successful and the space agency is granted a waiver to avoid having to re-test the batteries on the flight termination system which allows the rocket to be safely destroyed in the event of a critical problem post–lift-off.

Alongside this launch window — which lasts for 70 minutes, beginning at 11.37am EDT (4.37pm BST) — NASA is also considering a backup launch date of October 2, with a 109-minute window starting at 2.52pm EDT (7.52 BST).

NASA spokesperson Rachel Kraft said: “The updated dates represent careful consideration of multiple logistical topics, including the additional value of having more time to prepare for the cryogenic demonstration test, and subsequently more time to prepare for the launch.

“The dates also allow managers to ensure teams have enough rest and to replenish supplies of cryogenic propellants.”

NASA engineers last weekend completed repairs to the hydrogen leak responsible for the scrubbing of the Artemis mission’s most recent launch attempt.

This, the space agency explained, involved reconnecting the ground and rocket-side plates on the hydrogen fuel line’s quick disconnect to where the leak was traced.

Ms Kraft said: “This week, teams will conduct tests at ambient conditions to ensure there is a tight bond between the two plates before testing again during the cryogenic tanking demonstration.

“During the demonstration, launch controllers will load supercold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen into the core stage and interim cryogenic propulsion stage of the SLS rocket.”

This, she added, “will allow teams to confirm the hydrogen leak has been repaired, evaluate updated propellant loading procedures designed to reduce thermal and pressure-related stress on the system, conduct a kick-start bleed test, and evaluate the pre-pressurisation procedures.”

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Alongside scheduling the next launch attempt for Artemis, NASA — in tandem with Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX — are also working towards the launch of the Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station.

Ms Kraft said: “Teams are working the upcoming commercial crew launch in parallel to the Artemis I planning and both launch schedules will continue to be assessed over the coming weeks.

“NASA and SpaceX will review the Artemis I and Crew-5 prelaunch processing milestones to understand any potential impacts.

“The agency’s Crew-4 return will continue to be planned following a short handover on the space station with Crew-5.”

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