NASA copes with hydrogen leak, fuels Artemis moon rocket in critical test

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NASA's leak-plagued Space Launch System satellite rocket ran into initially worrisome problems during a fueling trial Wednesday, but engineers "managed" a caller leak successful a fitting that derailed a Sept. 3 motorboat try and were capable to capable the immense booster with a afloat load of 750,000 gallons of supercold propellants.

They besides carried retired 2 different captious tests, verifying their quality to decently chill the rocket's 4 hydrogen-fueled engines arsenic required for formation and successfully pressurizing the halfway signifier hydrogen vessel to formation levels.

Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson would not speculate connected whether NASA mightiness property up toward a September 27 motorboat day arsenic earlier discussed, saying she wanted her squad to reappraisal information from the trial earlier drafting immoderate conclusions. But she said she was "extremely encouraged by the trial today."

092122-padview5.jpg NASA's Space Launch System mega rocket atop pad 39B astatine the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday. Engineers carried retired a full-scale fueling trial to verify repairs to hole a hydrogen leak that derailed a September 3 motorboat try, yet different leak cropped up successful the aforesaid system. This clip around, engineers were capable to usage antithetic travel rates and pressures to afloat substance the elephantine rocket. NASA

"I don't similar to get up of the data, truthful I'd similar the squad to person the accidental to spell look astatine it to spot if determination are changes we request to marque to our loading procedures, our timelines oregon if we're bully arsenic is," she said.

The treatment could beryllium challenging fixed the seal blamed for the earlier motorboat hold was replaced and the aforesaid system, astatine slightest initially, leaked again Wednesday.

But adjacent if the squad concludes September 27 is simply a viable people for the rocket's maiden flight, it mightiness not beryllium enough. The Space Force Eastern Range, which oversees each subject and civilian launches from Florida, has not yet ruled connected a petition from NASA to waive a request to inspect batteries successful the rocket's self-destruct system.

The batteries cannot beryllium accessed astatine the motorboat pad and without a waiver, NASA volition beryllium forced to haul the 332-foot-tall SLS rocket backmost to the Kennedy Space Center's iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, delaying motorboat for a period oregon more.

The long-awaited Artemis 1 ngo is designed to nonstop an unpiloted Orion unit capsule connected a 40-day voyage astir the satellite and backmost to pave the mode for the archetypal piloted Artemis ngo successful 2024. If each goes well, NASA plans to onshore 2 astronauts adjacent the moon's southbound rod successful the 2025-26 timeframe, the archetypal successful a sustained bid of missions.

But engineers person been bedeviled by elusive hydrogen leaks and different issues during the rocket's run-up to launch. Already years down docket and billions implicit budget, the SLS rocket was archetypal hauled retired to motorboat pad 39B connected March 17 for a fueling trial to wide the mode for launch. But back-to-back scrubs were ordered April 3 and 4 due to the fact that of aggregate unrelated problems.

092122-umbilical1.jpg Liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellants travel into the Space Launch System's immense halfway signifier done retractable 8-inch-wide lines that widen from 2 alleged process work mast umbilicals (at left) to quick-disconnect fittings attached to the broadside of the booster. A leak successful the hydrogen fitting caused archetypal problems during a fueling trial Wednesday, but engineers were capable to re-seat a fishy seal and successfully load the rocket with propellants. NASA

A 3rd trial connected April 14 was called disconnected due to the fact that of a hydrogen leak adjacent the halfway signifier substance enactment quick-disconnect, and the rocket was rolled backmost to the VAB for servicing. It returned to the motorboat pad successful aboriginal June lone to endure much problems during a June 20 fueling test, erstwhile engineers were incapable to chill the rocket's engines due to the fact that of a stuck valve successful a antithetic system.

The rocket was returned to the VAB for repairs successful aboriginal July and hauled backmost to the pad successful mid-August for what NASA hoped would beryllium its maiden flight. But a motorboat effort connected August 29 was called disconnected due to the fact that of much hydrogen issues and again connected September 3 erstwhile the 8-inch quick-disconnect fitting leaked.

In the aftermath of the 2nd motorboat scrub, NASA managers opted to instrumentality the fitting isolated astatine the motorboat pad, regenerate an interior seal, re-assemble the hardware and transportation retired a fueling trial to verify the seal's integrity. Hydrogen leaks typically amusement up lone erstwhile the plumbing is exposed to cryogenic somesthesia — minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit successful this case, 

092122-venting.jpg Oxygen vapor billows from vents successful the broadside of the Space Launch System rocket arsenic propellants were loaded into the booster's precocious stage. NASA

The repair enactment was completed past week and the trial began usually capable Wednesday, with oxygen and hydrogen flowing into abstracted halfway signifier tanks astatine debased rates. In an effort to easiness the thermal daze erstwhile transitioning to "fast fill" mode, the loading series was slowed down and travel rates reduced to easiness stresses connected the hardware.

But erstwhile the travel complaint and pressures increased, sensors detected an contiguous buildup of gaseous hydrogen successful a containment lodging astir the just-repaired quick-disconnect fitting, indicating a leak. Sensors detected concentrations of up to 7%, good supra the 4% information limit.

Engineers past opted to lukewarm up the fittings earlier restarting the hydrogen travel successful hopes of coaxing the interior seal to "re-seat" itself. When travel resumed, a leak was inactive present, but it was good beneath the 4% threshold and engineers were capable to property ahead, yet topping disconnected the hydrogen vessel with a afloat load of 730,000 gallons.

A adjacent introspection of sensor information showed that successful a reversal of the initially observed behavior, the leak complaint went down arsenic unit increased. That's however the fitting is designed to operate, suggesting efforts to re-seat the seal were astatine slightest partially successful.

With the halfway signifier hydrogen and oxygen tanks full, engineers pressed up with loading the SLS rocket's precocious signifier and successful the meantime carried retired the pressurization and motor cooling tests.

Another hydrogen leak was reported adjacent a 4-inch quick-disconnect fitting utilized for the cooling test. While engineers already had agreed to property up with the observed concentration, it would person halted an existent motorboat countdown. No connection yet connected what impact, if any, that contented mightiness person connected motorboat planning.

In: Artemis Program NASA

William Harwood


Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. abstraction programme full-time since 1984, archetypal arsenic Cape Canaveral bureau main for United Press International and present arsenic a advisor for CBS News. He covered 129 abstraction shuttle missions, each interplanetary formation since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercialized and subject launches. Based astatine the Kennedy Space Center successful Florida, Harwood is simply a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."