NASA hopes to launch its lunar mega rocket as early as the end of August.
NASA is working on three “replacement” launch dates for Artemis 1, an uncrewed test flight around the Moon that serves as a cornerstone in testing future manned missions: August 29, September 2, and September 5. These dates are subject to change. and adjustments, however, to the Space Launch System rocket and its associated systems in light of the results of the June 20 “dress rehearsal,” which NASA declared a success, officials said in a media conference call Wednesday (July 20).
“This is not an agency commitment,” Jim Free, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems, said of the interim launch dates. NASA will announce a firmer commitment about a week before launch, when the agency completes a standard flight readiness check of the Artemis 1 stack, including the SLS and the rocket-mounted Orion capsule, he said.
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However, mid-August and early September dates are something “the team is working on and has a plan in place,” Free added. “But [we have] there is a lot of work left to do and likely to learn from, including sales.”
Closures are intermediate adjustments of key systems that are necessary for launch, flight to the moon and back for splashdown on Earth. NASA has a checklist of items to complete with the SLS stack before it leaves the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where work continues to address issues that arose during a wet dress rehearsal.
NASA deemed Artemis 1’s final dress rehearsal good enough to begin preparations for launch. Engineers fully fueled the SLS for the first time during three days of testing. But the team encountered a hydrogen leak from the “hose” line of the main stage engine cooling system.
During the test, the leak was repaired by closing the vent valve in the hydrogen flow path. This workaround allowed the team to complete the wetsuit, but it did not work during the actual launch because closing the exhaust valve leaves the engine’s thermal systems unregulated. (Operators ran a software “mask” during the test to allow the countdown to continue while still allowing the ground launch sequencer to note temperature fluctuations as intended.)
This was followed by a rollback to VAB on 2 July for maintenance, including repair of a quick-release component on the SLS stern umbilical responsible for the hydrogen leak. Technicians also conduct vehicle inspections, repair hydrogen leaks, replace main stage seals, install flight batteries, stow payloads and conduct energy tests on Orion, and perform program loads on the main stage and SLS upper stage.
NASA officials said in a phone call on Wednesday that they are making good progress with these repairs, but are carefully monitoring that Artemis 1 is ready before allowing it to leave the building. Staff have already replaced the navigation and control unit, as well as testing batteries and verifying an intermediate cryogenic propulsion stage that will propel the Orion capsule towards the Moon during its mission.
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Artemis 1 must go through a rigorous set of maintenance requirements “to say the vehicle is ready,” said Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager for NASA’s Ground Systems Program.
Only after the SLS stack completes these tests inside the VAB will it be allowed to move to the court, which could happen as early as August 18th if all goes well.
While the entire set of tests is lengthy, some of the key ones the agency oversees include tests of the SLS flight termination system, the rocket engine section, the forward skirt of the rocket’s main stage, which houses the on-board computers and avionics systems, and the Orion spacecraft.
Each of the three launch attempts has a different mission duration and launch time, NASA officials said. The launch opportunity on August 29 will open at 8:33 AM EST (13:33 GMT) and last for two hours; Assuming Artemis 1 is successfully launched, the Orion capsule will return to Earth in 42 days for splashdown on October 10th.
September 2 offers a two-hour launch window that opens at 12:48 pm EDT (5:48 pm GMT); in this scenario, Artemis 1 will return 39 days later on October 11th. The latest opportunity, September 5, includes a 1.5-hour launch window starting at 5:12 pm EST (22:12 GMT) and Artemis 1 will return in 42 days. later, 17 Oct.
As a back-up, the agency has identified several interim launch opportunities until mid-2023 in case weather or technical problems delay the Artemis 1.
NASA discussed the promotion of Artemis 1 on the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, when the first human steps on the moon were taken. The agency hopes to return humans there in 2025 or so, pending the results of Artemis 1 and the manned orbital mission Artemis 2, scheduled to launch no earlier than 2024.
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