NASA’s Space Launch System buffet model in NASA’s Langley Researcher Center’s Transonic Dynamics Tunnel. Image credit: NASA/LaRC
This week, researchers tested a ten-foot-long model of the new Space Launch System, NASA’s next big thing for launching humans beyond Earth orbit. The test was conducted at the Langley Research Center’s Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT).
“This is a critical milestone for the design of the vehicle,” said Langley research engineer, Dave Piatak.
Data retrieved will help prepare SLS for its first mission in 2017, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which will deliver an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit to check out the vehicle’s systems. But before SLS’s first flight, the safety vehicle must be demonstrated through analysis and testing. An important step in ensuring a safe flight to orbit is buffet wind-tunnel testing to help determine launch vehicle structural margins.
To do this, a wind-tunnel model is put through its paces at transonic and low supersonic speeds reaching up to Mach 1.2. Testing aerodynamics at these speeds is essential to understanding the structural interaction to the flow field around the vehicle and determining loads on the flight vehicle.
360 miniature sensors on the model’s surface are scanned by a data acquisition system scanning at thirteen thousand scans-per-second. Unlike the rigid SLS buffet wind-tunnel model, the real launch vehicle is quite flexible. The rocket will bend and shake in response to forces during flight, and engineers use tests like this to determine that the resulting bending loads and vibrations are within the launch vehicle’s safe limits.
NASA engineers are now analyzing the data, and will be used to help refine the design of the SLS vehicle before the full-size rocket is built for flight tests. After completing EM-1, SLS will perform its second mission in 2021, Exploration Mission-2, launching Orion with its first crew of astronauts to demonstrate orbit around the Moon.