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Fuel leak on Artemis 1 moon rocket might take weeks to correct, NASA says

photograph of rocket on launch pad

NASA’s Artemis 1 moon mission on the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket was likely to launch on Sept. 3, 2022, however the attempt was scrubbed because of hydrogen leak.(Image credit: NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. A fuel leak that thwarted NASA’s second try to launch its new Artemis 1 moon rocket on Saturday (Sept. 3) will probably take weeks to repair, and could even force the megarocket off its launch pad, space agency officials said.

The liquid hydrogen leak occurred Saturday morning as NASA tried to fuel its massive Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket to launch Artemis 1, an uncrewed test flight to the moon, from Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Despite three separate tries to repair the leak, engineers weren’t in a position to stem it and ultimately stood right down to measure the situation further.

That assessment, and the repair work it eventually ends up recommending, could keep Artemis 1 on the floor for approximately two more weeks at the very least.

Related: NASA’s Artemis 1 moon mission: Live updates

More: NASA’s Artemis 1 moon mission explained in photos

“We shall not be launching in this launch period,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, said in a briefing Saturday afternoon following the launch scrub.

That launch period closes on Tuesday (Sept. 6). Artemis 1 will will have to wait before next window, which runs from Sept. 16 to Oct. 4, to use again. Nonetheless it may find yourself slipping deeper into October another window runs from Oct. 17 to Oct. 31 because of safety requirements which could force the SLS rocket back to KSC’s cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) through the repairs. (Gleam potential conflict through the earlier window: SpaceX’s Crew-5 astronaut mission to the International Space Station is scheduled to lift off Oct. 3 from KSC’s Pad 39A.)

The initial Artemis 1 launch attempt, on Monday (Aug. 29), was scrubbed following the team pointed out that among the four RS-25 engines that power the SLS core stage wasn’t trying to cool off properly before launch. Analyses soon traced that issue to a faulty temperature sensor, and the team made a decision to push ahead with another put on Saturday.

Mission associates also successfully troubleshot a hydrogen leak during Monday’s try, however the one they saw on Saturday was different: it had been a whole lot bigger. The Saturday leak occurred close to the foot of the SLS rocket in what NASA calls a “quick disconnect,” a fitting that connects a liquid hydrogen fuel line to the core booster to fuel it for launch. The leak occurred following a brief “inadvertent” overpressurization of the fuel line that has been 3 x the acceptable pressure, said Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission manager.

“This is not just a manageable leak,” Sarafin said. The leak resulted in degrees of flammable hydrogen gas close to the rocket which were several times greater than the acceptable range, he added. It’s prematurily . to inform if the leak was due to the overpressurization event (that was set off by an errant manual command from the Launch Control Center) or not, Sarafin said.

“You want to be deliberate and careful about drawing conclusions here, because correlation will not equal causation,” he said.

A very important factor is clear, however: The quick disconnect’s soft seal gasket will probably need to be replaced. NASA engineers will meet in a few days to choose if that you can do at Launch Pad 39B (which may need a special enclosure to be built round the site) or if the 322-foot-tall (98 meters) rocket should be rolled back in the VAB for easier access.

Related: NASA’s Artemis program of moon exploration

As things currently stand, the SLS rocket must roll back again to the VAB soon to be able to test its flight termination system, that is made to destroy the rocket with explosives if it veers off course. The U.S. Space Force, which oversees the Eastern Range for rocket launches, requires NASA to check the safety system every 25 days, and that may only be achieved in the VAB.

The 25-day deadline for Artemis 1 is merely nearby, so NASA would want a waiver to help keep the moon rocket on the pad if it wished to fix the leak there. It’s unclear right now if the mission team plans to get this type of waiver.

“I believe we will talk with the number about what the options are,” Free said.

The picture will probably begin to become clearer early in a few days, following the Artemis 1 team has already established more time to investigate data and discuss options, Free and Sarafin said. However they stressed that calling off the launch today was the proper move, as did NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who also participated in the briefing.

“While we don’t possess the launch that people wanted today, I could tell you these teams know just what they’re doing, and I’m very pleased with them,” Nelson said.

Both scrubs find yourself costing NASA some cash, as Artemis 1 will have to use more liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant than originally planned. But that extra expenditure is acceptable, Nelson stressed.

“The price of two scrubs will be a lot less than failing,” he said.

Artemis 1 will send an uncrewed Orion capsule on an extended journey to lunar orbit and back. The mission the initial in NASA’s Artemis program of moon exploration is made to show that both vehicles will be ready to carry astronauts, that will first happen on the Artemis 2 flight round the moon in 2024, if all goes in accordance with plan.

Ten tiny cubesats are flying on Artemis 1, to conduct a number of science work and test various technologies. If Artemis 1 rolls back again to the VAB, the cubesats’ batteries could possibly be recharged, but it’s unclear at this time if this type of step is necessary for any of these, Sarafin said.

Space.com Spaceflight Editor Mike Wall contributed to the report. Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com or follow him@tariqjmalik (opens in new tab). Follow us@Spacedotcom (opens in new tab),Facebook (opens in new tab)andInstagram (opens in new tab).

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Tariq may be the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first being an intern and staff writer, and later being an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, in addition to skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com’s Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was an employee reporter for The LA Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. He could be also an Eagle Scout (yes, he’s got the area Exploration merit badge) and visited Space Camp four times as a youngster and a fifth time being an adult. He’s got journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and NY University. To see his latest project, it is possible to follow Tariq onTwitter.

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