After a successful test of the cryogenic refueling system for its Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, NASA says the weather forecast will determine whether it makes a third attempt to launch its Artemis 1 tour of the moon next week.
It’s not just some weather: it is a tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea that could become a hurricane hit the coast of Florida.
For now, NASA continues preparations for liftoff next Tuesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Ideally, we call it Plan A because the cryotest was successful and we don’t currently have a forecast that violates our meteorological criteria,” said Mike Bolger, manager of NASA’s Ground Systems Research Program.
That plan is subject to change depending on updated National Weather Service computer models for the storm system known as Tropical Depression 9. Even aside from the hurricane threat, the outlook is not good: A forecast issued early today put the chances of unacceptable weather at 80%, with clouds and precipitation among the concerns. Mission managers will announce on Saturday whether they are continuing with Plan A, and we will update this report with their decision.
Weather is currently the only concern for the first SLS launch. In the past month, takeoff had to be delayed twice due to problems encountered during the refueling process. After the cleanup, NASA replaced some of the rocket’s seals and instituted “better, gentler” fueling procedures.
The repairs and updated procedures were tested on Wednesday. All of the rocket’s fuel tanks were full — prompting NASA’s chief engineer for the SLS program, John Blevins, to say the day was “very successful.”
NASA also received permission from the US Space Force, which manages the Florida launch range, to delay replacing the rocket’s flight termination system batteries. This means that the rocket must not return from the launch pad for technical reasons.
If the launch team decides that stormy weather will make it too risky to keep SLS on the pad, Plan B will involve moving the 5.5 million-pound, 321-foot-tall rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. That would give NASA a chance to disconnect the batteries and perform other maintenance — but mission managers are concerned that the return and deployment operations could create new risks. And so they would prefer to launch the rocket next week if they can.
The first launch of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA, is just the beginning of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission. SLS will send an uncrewed Orion capsule on a cyclical, weekly trip around the moon and back. Sensors attached to three dummies will collect data on exposure to radiation, temperature and other environmental factors.
Orion will also carry an experimental Alexa-style voice assistant — created by Amazon in partnership with NASA, Lockheed Martin and Cisco — that could be used on future manned missions.
If Artemis 1 succeeds, it will usher in a manned lunar mission known as Artemis 2 in 2024, and then an Artemis 3 lunar landing that could happen as early as 2025.