After years of mounting anticipation, NASAs first full-scale moonshot since 1972 finally towered over its Florida launchpad in late Augustonly to go nowhere because of persnickety fuel leak.
Its just the most recent delay for Artemis 1an uncrewed flight slated to launch from Earth, shoot itself round the moon, and return. The recent setbacks mark a renewed episode of uncertainty over when, exactly, the mission will in actuality launch.
So whats causing these hold-ups, what exactly are NASA engineers doing to repair it, and can it affect NASAs long-term lunar dreams? (Spoiler: the solution compared to that last question is most likely no.)
What caused the delay?
A lot more than only a lunar launch, Artemis 1 was set to function as first test of the 21st centurys Saturn V: the Space Launch System (SLS), the behemoth rocket made to function as backbone of the Artemis program. While flying round the moon and back is obviously cool, testing the rocket that may power future launches could very well be a lot more important.
SLS uses hydrogen as a propellant, storing it in a super-chilled liquid form, below minus 423F. While engineers were cooling the fuel lines right down to that temperature, they accidentally raised the pressure. Later, as engineers began filling the rockets fuel tanks in preparation for the launch, they noticed a leak in a single fuel line where it met the rocket. If the two issues are related isnt yet known.
A good simple leak is actually a disaster in waiting, since it could spew out hydrogen gas: an extremely flammable substance, because the Hindenburg fire demonstrated.
(SLS is not any stranger to such fueling problems. Back April, when NASA engineers were conducting dress rehearsals of the rocket on the pad, engineers ran into recurring problems with leaking propellant while they tried to fill the rockets tanks.)
NASA engineers are actually attempting to fix the leak, replacing seals across the fuel line. On the next weeks, theyll retest on the pad.
Importantly, a scrubbed launch isnt a failed launch. Instead, its a choice to abort and try again later, once engineers have sorted out the issues accessible. Theyre a lot more keen to scrub or delay a launch than to possess something catastrophic that could really harm the mission, says Makena Young, an aerospace analyst at the guts for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
What goes on next?
After the engineers finish their retests, NASA cant instantly make an effort to launch again. To perform its mission, Artemis 1 needs the moon to stay a proper invest its orbit around Earth. That opportunity has passed by, and another launch window doesnt begin until late September: either the 23rd or the 27th.
Those dates aren’t arbitrary. Despite the fact that Artemis 1 is high-profile, it must share support systems with other missions. In cases like this, it could share a deep-space tracking network with DART, an uncrewed probe that aims to improve an asteroids course by crashing involved with it like, well, a dart. DARTs wedding day is on September 26, give or have a day. It isnt becoming for Artemis 1 to step on DARTs toes.
A September launch isnt certain. Another unanswered question is whether engineers will have to roll Artemis 1 back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the enormous skyscraper-sized hangar where NASA assembles its rockets. The question is due to something called the Flight Termination System, a battery-powered system that triggers the rocket to self-destruct if it veers off-course, avoiding collisions.
THE UNITED STATES Space Forcewho actually has authority over NASAs rocket launchescertified the batteries for a 25-day-long period that ends before that late September window begins. Normally, NASA would have to roll the rocket back to the VAB and replace the batteries. NASA is seeking special permission from the area Force to swap out the batteries on the pad instead.
If NASA needs to come back to the VAB, the September window might become trickier going to. Another window wont start until later in October. If so, NASA would have to work around a solar eclipse on October 25 which could throw a wrench in to the communication systems NASA relies upon.
What does the near future hold?
By all indication, its not just a matter of whether Artemis 1 will launch, but instead a matter of when. Still, for viewers on the floor, a few of whom have already been waiting decades to see Artemis materialize, the delays might feel just like assembling a bit of furniture and then find that the ultimate parts are missing.
But such may be the nature of any complex aerospace project. Its never assumed that those ideas will go perfectly, says Young. So, sometimes, these delays are simply the expense of conducting business.
It can help, in this instance, that another Artemis missions are well in to the future. Artemis 2, which plans to take three Americans and something Canadian round the moons orbit and back, a la Apollo 8, happens to be slated for 2024. Artemis 3the long-awaited first boots on the Moon in over half of a centurywont launch until 2025 at the very least.
The long downtime between missions, irritating as it can be for impatient Earthlings, do give NASA some slack. This means that future missions wont pay the cost of these delays.[Artemis 1] would need to slip much further in to the winter, as well as next year, to start out having impacts on all of those other program, says Young.