What’s next for Artemis 1

After years of mounting anticipation, NASA’s first full-scale lunar photo since 1972 finally soared over its Florida launch pad in late August — only to go nowhere due to a nasty fuel leak.

This is just the latest delay for Artemis 1, an unmanned flight that is supposed to launch from Earth, shoot around the moon and return. The recent setbacks mark a renewed bout of uncertainty about when exactly the mission will begin.

So what’s causing these traffic jams, what are NASA engineers doing to fix it, and will it affect NASA’s long-term lunar dreams? (Spoiler: the answer to that last question is probably no.)

What caused the delay?

More than just a moon launch, Artemis 1 was to be the first test of the 21st century Saturn V: The Space Launch System (SLS), the giant rocket designed to be the backbone of the Artemis program. While flying around the moon and back is certainly very cool, testing the rocket that will power future launches is perhaps even more important.

SLS uses hydrogen as a propellant, storing it in supercooled liquid form, below minus 423°F. While the engineers were cooling the fuel lines to this temperature, they accidentally increased the pressure. Later, as engineers began filling the rocket’s fuel tanks in preparation for launch, they noticed a leak in a fuel line where it met the rocket. It is not yet known if the two problems are related.

Even a simple leak can be a disaster in waiting because it can release hydrogen gas: a highly flammable substance because Hindenburg demonstrated fire.

(SLS is no stranger to such fuel problems. Back in April, when NASA engineers were conducting dress rehearsals of the rocket on the pad, engineers ran into recurring fuel leakage problems while trying to fill the rocket’s tanks.)

[Related: With Artemis, NASA is aiming for the moon once more. But where will it land?]

NASA engineers are now trying to fix the leak by replacing the fuel line seals. In the next few weeks they will test again on the pad.

The important thing is that a clean boot is not a failed boot. Instead, it’s a decision to abort and try again later after the engineers have resolved the issues. “They’re much more likely to scrub or delay a launch than have something catastrophic that really hurts the mission,” said Makena Young, an aerospace analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

What happens next?

Once engineers complete their retests, NASA can’t immediately try to launch again. To accomplish its mission, Artemis 1 needs the moon to be in the right place in its orbit around Earth. That opportunity has passed and the next launch window doesn’t start until late September: the 23rd or 27th.

These dates are not arbitrary. Although Artemis 1 is high-altitude, it must share support systems with other missions. In that case, it will share a deep-space tracking network with DART, an unmanned probe that aims to change the course of an asteroid by slamming into it like, well, an arrow. DART’s big day is September 26th, more or less. It’s not right for Artemis 1 to step on DART’s toes.

A September release is uncertain. Another unanswered question is whether engineers will have to return Artemis 1 back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the huge skyscraper-sized hangar where NASA assembles its rockets. The issue stems from something called the Flight Termination System, a battery-powered system that causes the missile to self-destruct if it veers off course, avoiding collisions.

The U.S. Space Force — which actually has authority over NASA’s rocket launches — certified the batteries for a 25-day period that ends before the window begins in late September. Normally, NASA would have to return the rocket back to the VAB and replace the batteries. NASA is seeking special permission from the space force to replace the pad’s batteries instead.

If NASA is to return to VAB, the September window may become more difficult to reach. The next window won’t start until later in October. In this case, NASA would have to bypass a solar eclipse on Oct. 25, which could throw a wrench in the communications systems NASA relies on.

What does the future hold?

From all indications, it is not a question of if Artemis 1 will be launched, but rather a question of when. Still, for viewers on the ground, some of whom have waited decades to see Artemis materialize, the delays can feel like assembling a piece of furniture only to find that the final pieces are missing.

But such is the nature of any complex aerospace project. “These things are never supposed to go perfectly,” says Young. “So sometimes these delays are just the cost of doing business.”

[Related: ‘Phantom’ mannequins will help us understand how cosmic radiation affects female bodies in space]

In this case, it helps that Artemis’ other missions are in the future. Artemis 2, which plans to take three Americans and one Canadian around the moon’s orbit and back, like Apollo 8, is currently scheduled for 2024. Artemis 3 – the long-awaited first moon boots in more than half a century – won t launch at least until 2025

The long layover between missions, as irritating as it is for impatient earthlings, gives NASA some slack. This means that future missions will not pay the price for these delays.

“[Artemis 1] it will have to go much further into the winter or even next year to start having an impact on the rest of the program,” says Young.

Leave a Comment