NASA’s three new Moon mission dates unveiled with one key difference

Brian Cox outlines goals of NASA's Artemis 1 mission launch

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A night-time launch could be on the cards next month for the Artemis I Moon mission, with NASA having announced three new lift-off opportunities for its Space Launch System (SLS). The first is a 69 minute window opening at 12.07am local time (5.07am GMT) on Monday, November 14, in which the Earth and the Moon are best lined up for a launch attempt. If the rocket succeeds in flying that day, it will lead to a 25-and-a-half day mission around the Moon, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on December 9. Should the US space agency miss that slot, they have pencilled in a pair of two-hour windows in the same week — one starting at 1.04am CST (06.04am GMT) on November 16 and the other at 1.45am (6.45am GMT) on November 19.

A NASA spokesperson said: “Inspections and analyses over the previous week have confirmed minimal work is required to prepare the rocket and spacecraft to roll out to Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida following the roll-back due to Hurricane Ian.

“Teams will perform standard maintenance to repair minor damage to the foam and cork on the thermal protection system and recharge or replace batteries on the rocket, several secondary payloads, and the flight termination system.

The “thermal protection system” is a layering protecting the rocket from temperature extremes ranging from -423F (-253C) up to 200F (93C), while the “flight termination system” is essentially a self-destruct mechanism that allows NASA to safely abort the flight if needed.

NASA added: “The agency plans to roll the rocket back to the launch pad as early as Friday, November 4.”

This will mark the fourth outward journey that the 322-feet-tall, 5.75million lbs SLS has made atop its crawler–transporter from the vehicle assembly building — having made the trip twice in the spring for two so-called “wet dress rehearsals”, and then again for the recent but aborted launch attempts.

Hurricane Ian accounted for the latest in the series of unfortunate delays experienced by the Artemis I mission, with NASA having already made two attempts at getting the SLS to lift-off — the first on August 29 and the second on September 3.

The initial launch attempt was scrubbed after it appeared one of the rocket’s four main engines was too hot during engine bleed tests.

This issue, however, was later traced to a misleading reading from a “bad sensor”. A persistent leak in the liquid hydrogen fuel line, meanwhile, brought the second go to a halt, despite engineers trying three times to troubleshoot the problem.

Both of these issues were reexamined in mid-September when NASA undertook a “cryogenic demonstration test”, which saw a practice tanking of the SLS’s core and interim stages with more than 730.000 gallons of liquid hydrogen fuel.

The space agency reported that “after encountering a hydrogen leak early in the loading process, engineers were able to troubleshoot the issue and proceed with the planned activities.”

These activities included revisiting the kick-start bleed test — in which a small amount of liquid hydrogen fuel is used to cool down the four RS-25 engines at the base of the rocket’s core stage to 423F (217C) — that threw up problems during the first launch attempt.

The purpose of this was to ensure that the engines are not unduly stressed when the supercool fuel is channelled into them properly at the time of launch.

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Following the cryogenic demonstration test, NASA reported “all objectives [were] met” — leading to optimism that the SLS will be able to successfully lift-off on the next attempt.

However, plans to deliver this launch earlier this month were thwarted by the landfall in Florida of the devastating Hurricane Ian.

The storm brought with it wind speeds well in excess of the 85 miles per hour threshold the SLS is capable of safely withstanding on its pad.

In Ian’s wake, NASA engineers reported that the rocket, sheltered in its assembly building — as well as the rest of the Artemis launch systems — did not appear to have been damaged by the extreme weather conditions.

Nevertheless, the space agency elected to eschew the launch window that opens later this month in favour of times in November.

As a NASA spokesperson explained, this focus has allowed “time for employees at Kennedy to address the needs of their families and homes after the storm and for teams to identify additional checkouts needed before returning to the pad for launch.”

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