Lightning struck NASA’s new Moon rocket four times yesterday as it was being fuelled up ahead of a test flight.
Artemis 1, an uncrewed trial flight intended to test NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft is currently scheduled to launch in late May or early June.
If all goes well, the system will be used to take NASA’s first human crew to the Moon since the early 1970s.
Artemis II, scheduled for May 2024, will see the first astronaut crew fly around the Moon in Orion.
But a “wet dress rehearsal”, where the 322-ft-tall rocket was fuelled with 700,000 gallons of super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellant was halted after after two fans used to keep dangerous gasses from mixing on the launchpad failed to operate as planned.
There was added drama when lightning struck the launch tower not once but four times.
At the time of the lightning strikes on Saturday, the rocket's core stage and its Orion spacecraft were powered up, but the solid rocket boosters and an interim cryogenic propulsion stage were off, according to a NASA update.
NASA released a statement following the incident, saying: "Engineers confirmed there were four lightning strikes to the lightning towers within the perimeter of Launch Pad 39B.
"Teams have determined the first three were low intensity strikes to tower two and are continuing to review data from the fourth strike, which was higher in intensity to tower one”.
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The incident was a chance to test the efficiency of a new lighting conductor system that had recently been installed. The towers are fitted with a fibreglass mast, with conductive cabling to divert lightning bolts away from the rocket.
Steven Young, publisher of specialist magazine Spaceflight Now, complained about the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the tests: "NASA announced it will conduct the SLS wet dress rehearsal behind closed doors," he tweeted. "No independent media coverage.
"Never in the history of U.S. human spaceflight has the press corps or the public been left this much in the dark about a new NASA vehicle".
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NASA says that that the launch team sees “no constraints proceeding with the test countdown timeline” and that they will continue with the test schedule overnight.
Artemis 1 is set to fly to the Moon, and return its crew capsule to Earth carrying a wealth of data-collecting equipment including a “crash test dummy” covered with sensors.
A second mission will repeat the test with a human crew on board.
If all goes well, NASA plans to launch a crewed mission to the Moon about every year beginning in 2027 with Artemis IV, establishing a permanent Moon base on the lunar South Pole.
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