Today, NASA got its next-generation Moon rocket all tanked up with nowhere to go. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel were loaded into the Space Launch System (SLS) today in an hours-long test of its troublesome fueling system.
It was what NASA called a “kinder, gentler” fueling procedure that was being tested after a hydrogen leak stymied the second launch attempt of the rocket and the Artemis I mission on September 3rd. The new procedures were “designed to transition temperature and pressures slowly during tanking to reduce the likelihood of leaks that could be caused by rapid changes in temperature or pressure,” NASA said in a blog post.
“I am extremely encouraged by the test today,” said Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, launch director for NASA’s Artemis program, after the test. But she declined to speculate on the timing for the next launch attempt, saying that the team needed to look through today’s data and see if any changes needed to be made to the timeline. “I don’t like to get ahead of the data,” she added.
The test was designed to simulate almost everything the team would go through during the fueling process on launch day, without actually launching the rocket. The equipment was subject to the same super-cold temperatures that it would experience during a typical fueling. As the rocket was loaded with liquid hydrogen, engineers noticed a leak in part of the fueling system that connects to the rocket, known as a “quick disconnect umbilical line.” The team decided to warm up that part of the system to see if the quick disconnect would readjust itself and keep the leak from getting worse. The procedure seemed to work — it didn’t stop the leak, but it contained it to a “manageable” level.
NASA says that all objectives of the test were met, paving the way for another launch attempt. But exactly when that will be is still up in the air. NASA has a tentative launch date penciled in for as early as next Tuesday, September 27th, with a backup date on October 2nd.
But there are still a few things that have to get ironed out before the rocket can finally take to the skies. In addition to engineers from the launch team needing to go through today’s data to see if they want to make any changes to the fueling procedure, NASA also needs to get a sign-off from the Space Force to let them launch.
The Space Force is in charge of safety in the area that NASA will be launching in. They require that rockets have a system in place that will let them destroy the rocket if something goes wrong. That flight termination system was certified for 20 days when the rocket rolled out to the pad in August. NASA did get one short extension of the certification to 25 days ahead of the second launch attempt, but it has now been 35 days since the rocket arrived at the launchpad. We’ll see what the Space Force and NASA decide in the coming days.