Cape Canaveral, Fla. — A fuel leak on NASA’s second attempt to launch its new Artemis 1 lunar rocket on Saturday (Sept. 3) could take weeks to fix, and may even Force the giant rocket off its launch pad, space agency officials said.
The leak of liquid hydrogen happened Saturday morning as NASA tried to fuel its giant fuel space launch system (SLS) Super Rocket Launch Artemis 1An unmanned test flight moon, Pad 39B from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Despite three separate attempts to fix the leak, engineers were unable to stop the leak and eventually stopped to further assess the situation.
That assessment, and the repairs it ultimately recommends, will keep the Artemis 1 on the ground for at least about two more weeks.
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“We’re not going to launch during this launch period,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, said during a briefing Saturday afternoon after the launch scrub.
That launch period ends on Tuesday (September 6). Artemis 1 now has to wait until the next window (from September 16th to October 4th) to try again. But as safety requirements could force the SLS rocket to return to KSC’s cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) during maintenance, it could eventually slip deeper into October — another window running from October 17 to October 31. (There was also a potential conflict in an earlier window: SpaceX’s Crew-5 Astronaut Mission The International Space Station is scheduled to lift off from KSC’s Pad 39A on October 3. )
On Monday (August 29), the first Artemis 1 launch attempt, scrubbed After the team noticed that one of the four RS-25 engines powering the SLS core stage was not cooling properly before launch.Analysis quickly traced the problem to a faulty temperature sensor, and the team decided try again saturday.
Mission team members also successfully addressed the hydrogen leak in their attempt on Monday, but they saw something different on Saturday: It was much bigger. Saturday’s leak occurred near the bottom of the SLS rocket, which NASA calls a “quick disconnect,” an accessory that connects a liquid hydrogen fuel line to the core booster to fuel its launch. Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission manager, said the leak occurred after a brief “unintentional” overpressure in the fuel line, which was three times the acceptable pressure.
“It’s not a controlled leak,” Sarafin said. He added that the leak resulted in levels of combustible hydrogen near the rocket that were several times higher than acceptable. Sarafin said it was too early to tell whether the leak was caused by an overpressure event, triggered by an erroneous manual command from the launch control center.
“We want to be cautious in drawing conclusions here because correlation does not equal causation,” he said.
However, one thing is clear: the quick-disconnect soft sealing gasket may have to be replaced. NASA engineers will meet next week to decide whether the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) rocket must be rolled back inside the pad. VAB is easier to access.
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As it stands, the SLS rocket needs to return to the VAB as soon as possible to test its flight termination system, which is designed to destroy the rocket with explosives if it veers off course. The US Space Force, which oversees Eastern Range rocket launches, requires NASA to test safety systems every 25 days, which can only be done in the VAB.
The 25-day deadline for Artemis 1 is just around the corner, so if NASA wants to fix the leak there, it needs a waiver to keep the lunar rocket on the launch pad. It is unclear whether the mission team plans to seek such a waiver.
“I think we’ll discuss with Range what the possibilities are,” Free said.
Things may start to become clearer early next week, Free and Sarafin said, after the Artemis 1 team has more time to analyze the data and discuss options. But they stressed that canceling the launch today was the right move, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also attended the briefing.
“While we didn’t launch the product we wanted today, I can tell you that these teams know exactly what they’re doing, and I’m very proud of them,” Nelson said.
These two scrubs will end up costing NASA some money, as Artemis 1 will need to use more liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants than originally planned. But Nelson stressed that the extra spending was acceptable.
“The cost of two scrubs is much less than failure,” he said.
Artemis 1 will send an unmanned Orion capsule to lunar orbit and back. The mission, the first in NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, is designed to show that both vehicles are ready to carry astronauts, which will first happen at Artemis in 2024 if all goes according to plan. Themis 2 orbiting the moon.
Ten tiny cubesats are flying aboard Artemis 1 to conduct various scientific work and test various technologies. Sarafin said that if Artemis 1 rolls back to a VAB, it would be possible to charge the CubeSat’s battery, but it’s unclear if such a step would be required for any of them.
Space.com Spaceflight Editor Mike Wall contributed to this report.Email or follow Tariq Malik at email@example.com @tariqjmalik (opens in new tab). follow us @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab), Facebook (opens in new tab) and Instagram (opens in new tab).