A possible hurricane threatens NASA’s plans to launch the Artemis satellite

NASA is making another attempt to launch the Artemis 1 rocket to the moon on its first flight delayed by a leak on Tuesday, closely monitoring a potential hurricane that could bring strong winds and heavy rain to Florida’s Space Coast, officials said Friday.

Meanwhile, the Space Force East Range, which oversees all military and civilian launches from Florida, granted NASA a request to waive a time-consuming test of the rocket’s self-destruct batteries, which would have required a rollback to the agency’s vehicle. Assembly case.

With the waivers in place, and engineers saying refueling tests on Wednesday showed leaks in the rocket’s hydrogen supply system could be controlled, weather is a major obstacle to the launch of the long-delayed Artemis 1 mission.

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The Space Launch System rocket is on pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday afternoon. NASA engineers say the rocket can withstand hurricane-force winds on the launch pad, but hope the looming storm will spare the spaceport. Despite this, the forecast of the possibility of launching on Tuesday will not be 80 percent.

NASA


The purpose of the test flight is to send the unmanned Orion crew capsule on an extended flight around the moon to help pave the way for the first manned launch in 2024 and a lunar landing mission in 2025-26.

But the Space Launch System rocket’s path to launch has been rocky, and now weather is threatening an additional delay.

The National Hurricane Center predicts that the storm, known as Tropical Depression No. 9, will strengthen in the next few days into a major hurricane, Hermina, which will cross western Cuba and then make landfall on the southwest Florida coast.

The forecast track shows the storm moving northeast across the Florida peninsula, possibly bringing tropical storm force winds or higher to the Kennedy Space Center, where the SLS rocket is located outdoors at Pad 39B.

Although the $4.1 billion moon rocket will not launch in high winds, Chief Engineer John Blevins said it can safely handle gusts of ​​up to 74 knots at the pad. And while the official forecast is currently 80% “no-go” for Tuesday’s launch, it does not violate NASA’s safety restrictions for being on the site.

But if the forecast worsens, engineers can bring the SLS back under the protection of the Vehicle Assembly Building with about three days’ notice. It’s a last-ditch measure, a move that will likely delay the rocket’s first flight for several more weeks.

“Our Plan A is to stay on course and launch on September 27,” said Mike Bolger, director of the Kennedy Space Center’s Ground Systems Research Division. “We understand that we also need to be really careful and think about a plan B.”

“If we decided to (use) Plan B, it would take us several days to go from our current refueling test or launch configuration to perform a rollback and return to VAB protection,” Bolger added.

He said the team planned to meet Friday night to discuss the latest forecast, “and we think we’ll probably make a decision no later than tomorrow morning or very early afternoon” on how to proceed.

“We’re good at the site for winds up to 74 peak knots,” Bolger said. “And for the pullback, we’re looking at a forecast of less than 40 knots of sustained winds. We’ll keep a close eye on that. More information is better, and I think in the next 24 hours, hopefully, we’ll get some good news, and we’ll stick with our Plan A “.

Tom Whitmeyer, a senior manager at NASA headquarters, downplayed the weather concerns, telling reporters that “it’s not even a named storm, it’s tropical depression number nine. It’s very early and some of the tracks that we’ve seen are going in different directions and go at different speeds and different intensities.’

But the National Hurricane Center’s forecast for 11 a.m. EDT said the system is expected to move “near or over western Cuba as a hurricane and then approach the Florida peninsula at or near hurricane strength, with the potential for significant impacts from storm surge, hurricane – strong wind and heavy rainfall.”

Friday marked 190 days since the SLS rocket was first delivered to Pad 39B for what turned out to be the first in a frustrating series of fuel tests to address various technical issues and repeated hydrogen leakage problems in the quick-connect fittings where the volatile propellant enters to the base of the missile.

After three test refueling attempts, a rollback to the VAB for repairs, and a fourth test on June 20, engineers took the SLS rocket back to the VAB for a second time for additional search and troubleshooting. The rocket was moved to the site in mid-August for an attempted launch on the 29th.

But two attempts in a row were canceled due to additional hydrogen problems. This prompted a launch pad repair to replace a suspected seal in the 8-inch hydrogen quick-release fitting that had leaked earlier.

During refueling tests on Wednesday to verify the repair, the fitting leaked again, but engineers were able to restore it to acceptable levels using lower pressure and flow.

The “hotter, gentler” fueling technique was designed to put less stress on the equipment, and it worked. Engineers were able to fully load the rocket and successfully conduct two critical tests of the main stage engine cooling system.

But NASA hasn’t gotten the SLS countdown down to the last half-minute yet, and weather aside, getting it to zero on Tuesday could still be a challenge. Any additional leaks or other issues that may arise will need to be addressed in the shorter 70-minute start-up period.

NASA has an option for a backup launch on Oct. 2, but after that, the Artemis 1 mission will likely stop until NASA sends a new crew to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon. This launch is currently scheduled for October 3rd, weather permitting.

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