NASA is planning the 2nd launch attempt of the Artemis rocket on Saturday

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NASA will make a second attempt to launch the agency’s giant Space Launch System rocket Saturday on a test flight to send an unmanned Orion crew capsule around the moon and back, a major milestone in the agency’s mission. ambitious Artemis program.

Founded Monday Struggling to cool one of the rocket’s four engines to the required temperature before launch, managers said Tuesday that engineers have come up with a solution. Assuming final clearance goes ahead, the launch team will begin a new countdown at 4:07 p.m. EDT Thursday.

This will set the stage for blast off on the Artemis 1 mission at 2:17 p.m. on Saturday, one day later than NASA’s original backup launch date. As always, the team will have to work around the weather, with forecasters predicting a 60 percent chance of stormy conditions during the rocket’s two-hour launch window.

The Space Launch System’s moon rocket at pad 39B awaits another launch attempt Saturday at 2:17 p.m. EDT. / Credit: CBS News

Mike Sarafin, president of NASA’s mission management group, said the core stage fueling process will be adjusted in an effort to improve cooling in all four RS-25 engines. In addition, the components will tighten around an umbilical fuel tube at the base of the rocket to improve sealing and prevent leaks like the one briefly experienced on Monday.

“We agreed to what was called ‘option 1,’ which was to operationally change our (fuel) loading process and start our engine chilldown earlier,” Sarafin said. “We also agreed to do some pad work to address the leak we saw in the hydrogen service umbilical.

“And we have also agreed to move the launch date to Saturday. We will reconvene the Mission Management Team on Thursday to review our flight rationale and overall readiness.”

The 322-foot-tall, 5.75-million-pound SLS is the more powerful missile ever built by NASA, generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust at launch using four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines left over from the shuttle program and two Northrop Grumman solid rocket boosters attached to a core stage built by the Boeing.

Accelerating to 70 mph — straight ahead — in just seven seconds, the rocket boosters and center stage will power the Orion capsule, carrying instrumented test dummies and an array of sensors and experiments into an elliptical orbit. The rocket’s upper stage, provided by United Launch Alliance, will then propel the capsule out of Earth’s gravity and into an orbit toward the moon.

After a close flyby, the capsule will be whisked around the moon and launched into a distant orbit that will take it farther from Earth than any human-rated spacecraft. Then, after another lunar flyby, the craft will head back to Earth to crash into the Pacific Ocean west of San Diego on October 11.

The goal of the Artemis 1 mission is to pass the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, including a high-speed, high-temperature reentry, before launching four astronauts around the Moon in late 2024. The first Artemis landing on moon planned for the 2025-26 timetable.

Given the constantly changing positions of the Earth and the Moon, along with the rocket’s ability to reach the correct orbit, NASA must launch the Artemis 1 mission within specific “windows.”

Complicating the picture, the battery used by the self-destruct system of the upper stage must be repaired after 25 days, and this can only be done at NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building.

That means the Artemis 1 mission must be off the ground by Monday or the rocket will be transferred back to the VAB, delaying another launch attempt until late September at the earliest or, more likely, October.

The SLS rocket is key to the Artemis program, and NASA managers and engineers want to make sure it works as planned before launching astronauts to the moon.

A full eight-minute core stage engine test launch took place at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi on March 18, 2021. The rocket was then sent to the Kennedy Space Center for launch processing.

NASA conducted a dress-down countdown and power-up test on April 3, a key milestone needed to make sure the rocket, launch platform and ground systems are working together as planned. But the engineers encountered a series of problems mainly in the ground system that prevented them from loading propellants,

Two more feeding attempts failed on April 4 and 14 due to a variety of unrelated problems. Engineers were finally able to fully load the core stage on June 20, but only after isolating a leaking quick-disconnect fitting that blocked the flow of hydrogen coolant to the core stage engines—a requirement for an actual launch.

The quick disconnect was repaired back at the Vehicle Assembly Building and the SLS rocket was repositioned on pad 39B on August 16 to have the vehicle ready for launch.

During Monday’s launch attempt, the repaired quick disconnect appeared to be working normally. With the core tanks full and full, liquid oxygen and hydrogen began circulating through the engine’s plumbing to adjust to the propellants’ extremely low temperatures—minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit for hydrogen and minus 297 degrees for oxygen.

But none of the engines reached the target temperature. Engines 1, 2 and 4 reached about -410 degrees while No. 3 engine only reached -380 degrees. During troubleshooting, engineers displaced all hydrogen coolant in engine 3 and it did not reach the planned operating temperature.

John Honeycutt, SLS program manager at Marshall Spaceflight Center, said engineers suspect a faulty sensor may be responsible for the readings from Engine 3. Pressure readings and other data indicate good cooling.

“The way the sensor behaves, it doesn’t align with her physical state,” he said. “And so we’re going to look at all the other data that we have to use it to make an informed decision as to whether or not we’ve frozen all the engines or not.”

By starting the cool-down process about 45 minutes earlier, when the engines are close to ambient temperatures, engineers believe they can manage to cool all four engines as required.

A similar procedure was used during the rocket’s test launch last year at the Stennis Space Center. In this case, the engines were properly cooled and started normally for a full-length “green run”.

“As of today, and based on the data we have, we think we can do something like what we did at Stennis Space Center to put ourselves in a better position for launch,” Honeycutt said.

Sarafin said the team will review all data Thursday before giving final approval to proceed with a launch attempt.

“The team is in the middle of looking at the data and building the rationale for the flight,” Honeycutt said. “I don’t have it yet, but I expect we can get there.”

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