NASA aborts launch of Artemis-1 moon rocket for second time after fuel leak

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Nasa aborted its latest attempt to launch the groundbreaking Artemis 1 moon rocket on Saturday after failing to contain a fuel leak discovered while refueling. It was the second time in five days that technical problems had kept the spacecraft on the launch pad.

Mission managers at Kennedy Space Center waited late in the countdown to clean up the launch after several failed workarounds to try to plug the leak of liquid hydrogen as it pumped into the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s core stage became.

Bill Nelson, head of the US space agency, pointed out that the severity of the problem deep inside one of the rocket’s engines made it unlikely repairs could be made at the launch pad, and Artemis would likely have to be wheeled back into the vehicle assembly building for major repairs.

That would mean Monday’s next backup launch opportunity is also unsustainable and the first test flight of mankind’s first manned lunar mission in 50 years will be further delayed, likely until mid-October, he suggested.

“It’s part of the space business,” he said. “We’ll go when it’s ready. Until then we’re not going, and especially not for a test flight, because we’re going to stress that and test that, and we’re going to test that heat shield and make sure it’s right before we put four people on the top.

“Although the [next launch] Window opens early October, I suspect it will be closer to mid.”

Nelson said mission managers would meet later on Saturday to make a final decision.

Agreeing with a recommendation from the fuel systems team, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Nasa’s Artemis launch director, canceled the launch at 11:17 a.m. local time (4:17 p.m. BT), with the countdown remaining 2 hours and 30 minutes.

The fuel leak, which became apparent during the early morning fill-up of 2.76 million liters (730,000 gallons) of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, is unrelated to the engine cooling problem that forced the postponement of the first attempt at starting last Monday. Officials said they identified this problem as a faulty sensor rather than a problem with the cooling system or the engine itself.

But the latest setback will come as a disappointment to the agency, which wants to show the progress it’s made in returning humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the 1972 Apollo 17 mission.

This 38-day mission to 40,000 miles behind the moon and back is unmanned but must be successful before astronauts can board a second test flight scheduled for 2024, then a lunar landing on Artemis III, currently scheduled for no earlier than late 2025.

More than a quarter million viewers packed the beaches and dams of Florida’s Space Coast over the Labor Day holiday weekend, eager for a moment of history.

Mission managers said the liquid hydrogen leak was in one of the four RS-25 engines on the SLS, which when finally launched will be the most powerful rocket to ever leave Earth.

The engines come from the long-defunct Space Shuttle program and together offer 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets of the Apollo era.

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