NASA Artemis I rocket left exposed to winds above design limits
A new problem has surfaced for NASA’s Artemis I rocket. The rocket was left exposed to winds above design limits, which caused some damage. This is a setback for the already delayed project.
The Artemis I rocket is the first step in NASA’s plan to send humans to Mars, and it was supposed to launch in 2022. Now, it is unclear when the launch will happen. NASA officials are assessing the damage and working on a plan to fix the problem.
On Thursday morning, Hurricane Nicole struck Vero Beach, Florida’s eastern coast. Nicole’s eye was nearly 60 miles wide, so its strongest winds were found well to the north.
This caused Kennedy Space Center to experience some of the strongest wind gusts from Nicole on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
Although such winds from a Category 1 hurricane are unlikely to cause damage, they are concerning because the space agency’s Artemis I mission (which included the Space Launch System rocket as well as Orion spacecraft) was left exposed on Launch Complex-39B. It is just a stone’s throw away from the Atlantic Ocean.
What was the wind speed? Data from the NASA sensors at this launch pad’s three lighting towers are available on a public website. The sensors are at different altitudes, ranging from 132 feet up to 457 feet.
It can be difficult to interpret these readings. The majority of publicly available data appears to be from an altitude of around 230 feet. This would correspond to the Space Launch System rocket’s core stage. The whole stack is approximately 370 feet high.
NASA stated that its SLS rocket could withstand winds gusts of 74.4 knots before Nicole arrived. also stated Tuesday in a blog that the highest risks to the pad are high winds, which are unlikely to exceed the SLS design.
According to publicly available data, the rocket was exposed for several hours to wind gusts of up to 74.4 knots on Thursday morning. On the National Weather Service website, a peak gust of 87 knots was recorded.
There were multiple gusts that exceeded NASA’s design limits. It is possible that NASA’s 74.4-knots design limit may have some margin.
It is wrong for the space agency to claim that forecasters didn’t predict Nicole’s winds. It is not true that forecasters from the National Hurricane Center had allowed for winds as high as possible, even though they weren’t the most likely scenario.
On Tuesday, shortly before NASA issued its blog post update downplaying the risks to Artemis I from Nicole, the National Hurricane Center predicted a 15% chance of hurricane-force winds near Kennedy Space Center. This would have produced gusts similar to those recorded Thursday morning at the launch site.
What now? The space agency still targets a launch attempt on Wednesday, November 16 at 1:04 AM ET (06:04 UTC). Although theoretically, this is possible. However, in practice, it seems unlikely.
They will inspect the vehicle once it is safe for NASA contractors and employees to return to Kennedy Space Center, possibly later today or Friday.
Phil Metzger, an engineer that worked for NASA on the space shuttle program, said that the main concern after prolonged exposure to high winds will be the rocket’s structural integrity. The rocket’s purpose is to propel itself upward.
It can withstand intense pressure and wind in the vertical direction but not in the horizontal.
Metzger forecasted that structural engineers will have to spend the next few weeks assessing the damage caused by the storm and requesting waivers to fly the vehicle once it has been exposed to the loads. This is a challenging task. It is impossible to X-ray structures within the rocket.
This will require running structural calculations and rerunning them. The program’s leadership must decide if the risk, which includes the possibility that the rocket will break apart during launch, is too high to fly without additional inspections or remedial work.