Monday, May 20, 2024

NASA calls off Moon rocket launch

NASA has called off the launch of its big new Moon rocket — the Space Launch System (SLS).

Controllers struggled to get an engine on the 100-metre-tall vehicle cooled down to its correct operating temperature, the BBC reports.

They had previously worried about what appeared to be a crack high up on the rocket but eventually determined it was merely frost build-up.

The SLS is the biggest rocket ever developed by NASA. It will be used to send astronauts to the Moon.

The maiden flight, part of NASA’s Artemis program, was to be a demonstration with no one on board. More complex missions are planned for the future that will see people live on the lunar surface for weeks at a time.

The scrub will have disappointed the hundreds of thousands of spectators who had gathered on local beaches and causeways to see the most powerful rocket in 50 years fly skyward.

But NASA administrator Bill Nelson, a one-time astronaut, said the cautious approach was the right one.

“We don’t launch until it’s right,” he said. “And I think it’s just illustrative that this is a very complicated machine, a very complicated system. And all those things have to work. You don’t want to light the candle until it’s ready to go.”

NASA has the option to try again on Friday, if the engine issue can be resolved by then.

However, if controllers have to roll the rocket back to Kennedy’s assembly building to swap out the engine, it will introduce several weeks of delay.

Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager, said teams needed time to review all the data, but he thought a roll-back was unlikely.

“If we can resolve this operationally out on the pad in the next 48 hours, 72 hours, Friday is definitely in play,” he told reporters.

Sarafin revealed that a venting valve was also playing up on the rocket at the time of the scrub.

NASA will have to be mindful of the weather as it looks at new launch opportunities. Conditions in Florida are dynamic at this time of year. Electrical storms frequently pass over the spaceport. It’s best to try to launch in the morning. It’s generally calmer. But the opportunity this Friday and on Monday next are afternoon launch windows.

Even during this countdown there were moments when the weather was no-go for rain and lightning.

When the SLS does eventually lift off, the rocket’s job will be to propel a test capsule, called Orion, far from Earth.

This spacecraft will loop around the Moon on a big arc before returning home to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean six weeks later.

Orion will be uncrewed for the first mission, but, assuming all the hardware works as it should, astronauts will climb aboard for a future series of missions, starting in 2024.

The current mission’s chief objective actually comes right at the end of the 42-day flight.

Engineers are most concerned to see that Orion’s heatshield will cope with the extreme temperatures it will encounter on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.

Orion will be coming in very fast — at 38,000 km/h, or 32 times the speed of sound.

“Even the reinforced carbon-carbon that protected the shuttle was only good for around 3,000F (1,600C),” said Mike Hawes, the Orion program manager at aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

“Now, we’re coming in at more than 4,000F (2,200C). We’ve gone back to the Apollo ablative material called Avcoat. It’s in blocks with a gap filler, and testing that is a high priority.”

The European Space Agency has provided the service module for Orion. This is the rear section that pushes the capsule through space. It’s an in-kind contribution that Europe hopes will lead to its nationals being included in future journeys to the surface of the Moon.


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