NASA is still aiming to launch its Artemis 1 lunar rocket on Wednesday, November 16, but a few boxes need to be checked first.
Artemis 1, which will send an uncrewed Orion capsule into lunar orbit using a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, is scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on Wednesday during a two-hour window that opens at 1:04 a.m. EST (0604). And the mission team is confident that it can achieve this goal.
“I feel good before this attempt on the 16th,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington, during a press briefing on Sunday evening (November 13).
“The team moves forward as one unit,” he added. “We just have work to do.”
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One of the targets of this work will be a thin strip of caulking called RTV that encircles Orion. The RTV helps smooth out a small indentation in the capsule that could potentially cause unwanted airflow and heating during flight, Sarafin said.
Hurricane Nicole tore through some of that caulking on Thursday (November 10) when it slammed into Florida’s space coast, mission team members said. (The Artemis 1 stack endured the wrath of Nicole, who weakened to a tropical storm shortly after landing in the open on KSC’s Pad 39B.)
It’s possible some of the storm-torn RTVs could break free during liftoff, creating a debris hazard for the SLS, Sarafin said. The team is still reviewing the nature and severity of this risk.
“We just need to spend a little more time reviewing our flight rationale ahead of this launch attempt, particularly as it relates to releasing any remaining RTVs and debris hauling,” Sarafin said.
The Artemis 1 team is not very concerned about the increase in “aeroheating” around Orion due to the loss of some RTVs, he added.
“We have safeguards in place with respect to the materials that underlie this RTV,” he said. “It’s just an extra layer to create a kind of continuous airflow.”
The RTV issue can’t be fixed on the launch pad because Orion sits so high atop the SLS. If the team determines that the caulking needs to be replaced, a restoration at KSC’s vehicle assembly building would likely be required.
In addition to the RTV scans, the team plans to replace an electrical connector near the base of the SLS that is associated with some wonky readings. This can be done at the pad. And that’s less of a problem, Sarafin said, because the rocket has considerable redundancy in its electrical systems.
“We have very well-written launch engagement criteria that are very well thought out,” Sarafin said. These criteria, he added, “would allow flying despite what this connector can provide. That said, we hope to return to a fully functional capability.”
The Artemis 1 team will meet again on Monday (November 14) to discuss these and other questions. They plan to hold another briefing this afternoon, so we’ll have an update on the situation and final thoughts at that time.
Artemis 1 will be the first-ever flight for SLS and the second for Orion, which launched into Earth orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket in 2014.
It will also be the first mission for NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, which aims to establish a crewed outpost near the moon’s south pole by the late 2020s.
If all goes as planned with Artemis 1, Artemis 2 will launch in 2024, sending astronauts on trips around the moon. Artemis 3 will land boots near the lunar south pole in 2025 or 2026.
Artemis 1 will last about 26 days if launched on Wednesday. (Different launch dates lead to different mission durations, thanks to orbital dynamics.) Mother Nature should cooperate; there is a 90% chance that it will be sunny on Wednesday. If Artemis 1 can’t fly that day, NASA has backup dates of Nov. 19 and Nov. 25.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or on Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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