World’s Largest Hydrogen Tank Will Make It Easier for NASA to Launch SLS Megarocket

The existing liquid hydrogen tank at Kennedy Space Center, which contains approximately 50% less LH2 than the proposed storage tank.

The existing liquid hydrogen tank at Kennedy Space Center, which contains approximately 50% less LH2 than the proposed storage tank.
photo: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Preparations for the manned Artemis 2 journey to the Moon are well underway, and NASA is rolling out various fixes, upgrades, and new technologies to support the mission, which could happen as early as 2024. Some of the more exciting developments include a gigantic new hydrogen tank and an updated escape system that harks back to the space shuttle era.

Artemis 2, the follow-up to the recently completed Artemis 1 mission, won’t launch until late 2024 at the earliest, but NASA is already in Go mode to meet that schedule. A key difference between the two missions is that astronauts will participate in Artemis 2, which requires some major enhancements and adjustments that were not required for the unmanned Artemis 1. To this end, teams with Exploration Ground Systems have been hard at work at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A major frustration for Artemis 1 was lifting NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket off the ground for the first time ever. Constantly Technical problems And annoying hydrogen leaks required multiple launch attempts by NASA with the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) mega rocket finally take off on November 16, 2022 at the third attempt. And that doesn’t include the four wet dress rehearsals (or five, should we choose to include those cryogenic tank test takes place on September 21st). As a further complication, the mission planners had to squeeze the launch attempts into a flight plan dictated by celestial events, namely the Earth’s position relative to the Moon and Sun.

Easy access to liquid hydrogen — the propellant that powers SLS’s four-engine core stage and single-engine interim cryogenic propulsion (ICPS) stage — would make it much easier for the Exploration Ground Systems team to conduct consecutive launch attempts in the likely event of Scrubs. I say probably because liquid hydrogen or LH2 is it notoriously difficult to contain.

The new 1.4 million gallon liquid hydrogen tank, located at Launch Complex 39B, will serve to reduce the time between multiple launch attempts, NASA said in a opinion. Jeremy Parsons, Deputy Chief of Exploration Ground Systems at NASA, told Reporter late last year that the new hydrogen sphere “will give us more consecutive launch attempts, which is a tremendous capability when we’ve gotten smaller [launch] Window.” Once operational, it will be the largest liquid hydrogen tank in the world. after to the Cryogenic Society of America.

The Exploration Ground Systems program currently has an existing 850,000 gallon liquid hydrogen tank at launch pad 39B. This tank was built during the Apollo missions and used during the Shuttle era. For Artemis 2 and beyond, “both liquid hydrogen tanks will be deployed,” a NASA spokesman confirmed to Gizmodo today.

The new liquid hydrogen tank will have a capacity of 1.4 million gallons, but with usable space closer to 1.25 million gallons, the spokesman clarified. The SLS core level and ICPS require more than 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen. Filled with 1.25 million gallons of the super-cooled material, the new tank will store more than twice the amount of liquid hydrogen needed for a single launch, and will be left with some vital space as some evaporates on the launch pad. Together, the two hydrogen tanks provide 2.1 million gallons of liquid hydrogen storage capacity. Construction of the new tank started in 2018.

In preparation for an SLS launch, ground teams use transfer lines to direct liquid hydrogen from a storage tank to the base of the mobile launcher. From there, the umbilical tower umbilical transfers the fuel to the core stage and ICPS tanks. Once the new tank is ready, ground crews will conduct validation testing to “make sure we’re getting the right pressures, flow rates, no issues with the manifold and things like that,” Parsons said.

An emergency exit system Launch Complex 39B is also where the final area is under construction. In the event of an emergency during the launch countdown, astronauts can use this system to safely exit the launch pad area. The system, which was not needed for Artemis 1, is similar to that used during the Shuttle program, where astronauts sat in baskets held up by cables. It’s a bit like zip lining but without the fun.

2006 file photo showing space shuttle astronauts practicing an emergency escape using the egress system on Launch Pad 39B.

2006 file photo showing space shuttle astronauts practicing an emergency escape using the egress system on Launch Pad 39B.
photo: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The improved system “will allow astronauts to exit Orion in the Crew Access Arm white space, through the mobile launch vehicle tower, down to the emergency transport vehicles on the ground and on to a safe haven,” according to NASA. The new emergency exit system will have larger capacity and various upgrades to meet the needs of Artemis 2 and upcoming versions Block 1B SLS missile required for Artemis 4 and future moon missions.

For Crawler Transporter 2, the teams plan to replace the individual shoes or treadplates on the two large tracks, add new steering cylinders, and do anti-corrosion work. Ground teams are also in the process of repairing damage sustained by the mobile launcher during SLS’s initial launch. These include busted pipes, fried cameras, and blast doors on the tower’s elevator that, uh, blew up.

More about this story: NASA is downplaying the damage done to the launch pad by the SLS rocket

Also, preparations are underway for the Artemis 2 Orion Crew Module, which will actually host a crew during Artemis 2. Much like Artemis 1, Orion will return home to Earth, bypassing the moon and with no planned activities on the lunar surface. That feat — the first moonwalk since the 1972 Apollo 17 mission — won’t happen until Artemis 3, which is currently scheduled for launch in either 2025 or 2026.

The Artemis 2 Orion capsule will feature hardware not found in Artemis 1, “including normal and emergency communications components, display units, hand controls, full fidelity side and docking hatches, environmental controls, and nitrogen, oxygen, water, and air life support subsystems , as well as waste management and fire detection and suppression,” according to the space agency. Orion’s Heat Shield will be added before Summer. The all-important launch abort system of the rocket is 90% complete in terms of assembly, integration and testing.

It seems a bit early to be talking about Artemis 2, but late 2024 isn’t far off, especially as far as NASA’s timelines are concerned. The space agency isn’t known for meeting deadlines, so these are all very necessary things. NASA also benefited from the enormous success of Artemis 1 and was able to set its sights firmly on the next mission.

More: 7 things we learned from NASA’s hugely successful Artemis 1 mission World’s Largest Hydrogen Tank Will Make It Easier for NASA to Launch SLS Megarocket

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