In the next fifteen years, NASA, China, and SpaceX will make the next great leap in space exploration by sending the first crewed missions to Mars. This presents many challenges, not the least of which is distance. Even when they are closest to each other in their orbits (aka. when Mars is in Opposition), Mars can still be up to 55 million km (34 million mi) from Earth. Using conventional propulsion (chemical rockets), a one-way transit can last six to nine months, which works out to a total mission time (including surface operations) of about three years.
That’s a very long time for people to be in microgravity, not to mention exposed to solar and cosmic radiation. To address this, NASA is investigating advanced propulsion methods that will reduce transit times and hibernation technologies that will allow crews to sleep through most of their voyage. This year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program selected the Studying Torpor in Animals for Space-health in Humans (STASH) experiment, a new method for inducing torpor developed by Ryan Sprenger and colleagues at the California-based biotechnology firm Fauna Bio Inc.
NASA and aerospace company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, have successfully completed qualification testing of the Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS), which is a 12-kilowatt, solar electric propulsion (SEP) engine being built for use for long-term space missions to the Moon and beyond, and AEPS is being touted as the most powerful electric propulsion—also called ion propulsion—thruster currently being manufactured. For context, 12 kilowatts are enough to power more than 1,330 LED light bulbs, and the success of these qualification tests come after NASA announced the beginning of qualification testing in July.
Although humans have flown to space for decades, the missions have primarily been in low-Earth orbit, with just a handful of journeys to the Moon. Future missions with the upcoming Artemis program aim to have humans living and working on the Moon, with the hopes of one day sending humans to Mars.
However, the environments of the Moon and deep space present additional health challenges to astronauts over low-Earth orbit (LEO), such as higher radiation, long-term exposure to reduced gravity and additional acceleration and deceleration forces. A new paper looks at the future of biomedicine in space, with a sobering takeaway: We currently don’t know enough about the biomedical challenges of exploring deep space to have an adequate plan to ensure astronaut health and safety for the Artemis program.
Humans have long dreamed of setting foot on Mars or beyond, and the advances by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin means perhaps the dream could be closer than ever to becoming reality. But as it stands now, sending astronauts on long-duration missions to other worlds would be impossible because of the hazardous radiation levels in space, outside of Earth’s protective magnetic field.
However, a new concept offers hope on the horizon, and the researchers behind it have received funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to build a prototype. Called CREW HaT, the proposal takes advantage of the latest advances in superconducting magnet technology to effectively shield spacecraft – and the astronauts inside — from harmful space radiation.
Under the 3 year, $67 million contract award, Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop the engineering development unit for an Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) with the potential for follow on flight units.
NASA hopes that the work will result in a 10 fold increase in “spaceflight transportation fuel efficiency compared to current chemical propulsion technology and more than double thrust capability compared to current electric propulsion systems.”
The SEP effort is based in part on NASA’s exploratory work on Hall ion thrusters which trap electrons in a magnetic field and uses them to ionize and accelerate the onboard xenon gas propellant to produce thrust much more efficiently than chemical thrusters.
The solar electric propulsion (SEP) system technology will afford benefits both to America’s commercial space and scientific space exploration capabilities.
For NASA, the SEP technology can be applied for expeditions to deep space such as NASA’s planned Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission (ARRM) to snatch a boulder from the surface of an asteroid and return it to cislunar space during the 2020s, as well as to carry out the agency’s ambitious plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ during the 2030s.
“High power SEP is a perfect example of NASA developing cross cutting technologies to enable both human and robotic deep space missions. Basically it enables high efficiency and better gas mileage,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington, at a media briefing.
“The advantage here is the higher power and the higher thrust.”
“Our plan right now is to flight test the higher power solar electric propulsion that Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop for us on the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM), which is going to go out to an asteroid with a robotic system, grab a boulder off of an asteroid, and bring it back to a lunar orbit.”
ARRM would launch around 2020 or 2021. Astronauts would blast off several years later in NASA’s Orion crew capsule in 2025 after the robotic probes travels back to lunar orbit.
For industry, electric propulsion is used increasingly to maneuver thrusters in Earth orbiting commercial satellites for station keeping in place of fuel.
“Through this contract, NASA will be developing advanced electric propulsion elements for initial spaceflight applications, which will pave the way for an advanced solar electric propulsion demonstration mission by the end of the decade,” says Jurczyk.
“Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions.”
“This is also a critical capability for enabling human missions to Mars, with respect to delivering cargo to the surface to Mars that will allow people to live and work there on the surface. Also for combined chemical and SEP systems on a spacecraft to propel humans to Mars,” elaborated Jurczyk at the briefing.
“Another application is round trip robotic science missions to Mars to bring back samples – such as a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.”
The starting point is NASA’s development and technology readiness testing of a prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster and power processing unit at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Under the contract award Aerojet Rocketdyne aims to carry out the industrial development of “high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-qualified system.”
They will develop, build, test and deliver “an integrated electric propulsion system consisting of a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness,” as an engineering development unit.
This engineering development unit serves as the basis for producing commercial flight units.
If successful, NASA has an option to purchase up to four integrated flight units for actual space missions. Engineers from NASA Glenn and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will provide technical support.
“We could string together four of these engine units to get approximately 50 kilowatts of electrical propulsion capability and with that we can do significant orbital transfer operations. That then becomes the next step in deep space exploration operations that we are trying to do,” said Bryan Smith, director of the Space Flight Systems Directorate at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, at the media briefing.
“We hope to buy four of these units for the ARRM mission.”
What were some of NASA’s research and development (R&D) activities and further plans for Aerojet Rocketdyne?
“NASA is driving out the technology itself for feasibility. So we produced a developmental device to operate at these levels,” Smith told Universe Today during the briefing.
“Other key characteristics we were looking for is the ability to do magnetic shielding. The purpose was to allow for a long life thruster operation. We investigated attributes like thermal problems and balancing the erosion mechanisms in developmental units. So we were looking for things to get longer life and feasibility in developmental units.”
“Once we were comfortable with the feasibility in developmental units, we are now transferring the information, technology and knowhow into what is a production article, in this contract.”
Solar electric ion propulsion is already being used in NASA’s hugely successful Dawn asteroid orbiter mission.
Dawn was launched in 2007. It orbited and surveyed Vesta in 2011 and 2012 and then traveled outward to Ceres.
Dawn arrived at dwarf planet Ceres in March 2015 and is currently conducting breakthrough science at its lowest planned science mapping orbit.
A key part of the Journey to Mars, NASA will be sending cargo missions to the Red Planet to pave the way for human expeditions with the Orion crew module and Space Launch System.
Aerojet Rocketdyne states that “Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) systems have demonstrated the ability to reduce the mission cost for NASA Human Exploration cargo missions by more than 50 percent through the use of existing flight-proven SEP systems.”
“Using a SEP tug for cargo delivery, combined with NASA’s Space Launch System and the Orion crew module, provides an affordable path for deep space exploration,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne Vice President, Space and Launch Systems, Julie Van Kleeck.
Another near term application of high power solar electric propulsion could be for NASA’s proposed Mars 2022 telecom orbiter, said Smith at the media briefing.
Other NASA technology work in progress includes development of more efficient, advanced solar array systems to generate the additional power required for the larger electric thrusters.
Orbital ATK was part of the development effort and already used some of its technology development in the ultraflex solar arrays on the recent Cygnus cargo ships delivering supplies to the ISS.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
The Obama Administration has announced its new Federal budget and is proposing to cut NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget to $19 billion by carving away significant funding for deep space exploration, whereas the overall US Federal budget actually increases to over $4.1 trillion.
This 2017 budget request amounts to almost $300 million less than the recently enacted NASA budget for 2016 and specifically stipulates deep funding cuts for deep space exploration programs involving both humans and robots, during President Obama’s final year in office.
The overall Exploration Systems Development account for human deep space missions would be slashed about 18 percent from the 2016 funding level; from $4.0 Billion to only $3.3 Billion, or nearly $700 million.
SLS alone is reduced the most by $700 million from $2.0 billion to $1,31 billion, or a whopping 35 percent loss. Orion is reduced from $1.27 billion to $1.12 billion for a loss of some $150 million.
Make no mistake. These programs are already starved for funding and the Obama administration tried to force similar cuts to these programs in 2016, until Congress intervened.
Likewise, the Obama administration is proposing a draconian cut to the proposed robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that would surely delay the launch by at least another half a decade or more – to the late 2020s.
The Europa mission budget proposal is cut to only $49 million and the launch is postponed until the late 2020s. The mission received $175 million in funding in 2016 – amounting to a 72 percent reduction.
Furthermore there is no funding for a proposed lander and the launch vehicle changes from SLS to a far less powerful EELV – causing a year’s long increased travel time.
In order to maintain an SLS launch in approximately 2022, NASA would require a budget of about $150 million in 2017, said David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, during a Feb. 9 teleconference with reporters.
Why is Europa worth exploring? Because Europa likely possesses a subsurface ocean of water and is a prime target in the search for life!
Overall, NASA’s hugely successful Planetary Sciences division suffers a huge and nearly 10 percent cut of $141 million to $1.51 billion – despite undeniably groundbreaking scientific successes this past year at Pluto, Ceres, Mars and more!
Altogether NASA would receive $19.025 billion in FY 2017. This totals $260 million less than the $19.285 billion appropriated in FY 2016, and thus corresponds to a reduction of 1.5 percent.
By contrast, the overall US Federal Budget will increase nearly 5 percent to approximately $4.1 trillion. Simple math demonstrates that NASA is clearly not a high priority for the administration. NASA’s share of the Federal budget comes in at less than half a cent on the dollar.
NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal was announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a televised ‘State of NASA’ address at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia on Feb. 9.
Bolden did not dwell at all on the significant funding reductions for exploration.
“We are hitting our benchmarks with new exploration systems like the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion Crew Vehicle. A new consensus is emerging in the scientific and policy communities around our vision, timetable and plan for sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.”
And he outlined some milestones ahead.
“We’ll continue to make great progress on the Space Launch System – SLS–rocket and we’re preparing for a second series of engine tests,” said Bolden.
“At the Kennedy Space Center, our teams will outfit Orion’s crew module with the spacecraft’s heat-shielding thermal protection systems, avionics and subsystems like electrical power storage, cabin pressure control and flight software –to name just a few.”
NASA plans to launch the first combined SLS/Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in November 2018.
The launch date for the first crewed flight on EM-2 was targeted for 2021. But EM-2 is likely to slip to the right to 2023, due to insufficient funding.
Lack of funding will also force NASA to delay development of the far more capable and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to propel Orion on deep space missions. It will now not be available for the SLS/EM-2 launch as hoped.
The proposed huge budget cuts to SLS, Orion and Europa are certain to arose the ire of multiple members of Congress and space interest groups, who just successfully fought to increase NASA’s FY 2016 budget for these same programs in the recently passed 2016 omnibus spending bill.
“This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, in a statement in response to the president’s budget proposal.
“President Obama’s FY17 budget proposal shrinks our deep space exploration programs by more than $800 million. And the administration once more proposes cuts of more than $100 million to the Planetary Science accounts, which have previously funded missions like this past year’s Pluto flyby.”
“This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible. This is not the proposal of an administration that is serious about maintaining America’s leadership in space.”
“The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration … had hoped the request would reflect the priorities laid out for NASA in the FY16 Omnibus, for which there was broad support,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, in a statement.
“Unfortunately this was not the case. The Coalition is disappointed with the proposed reduction in funding below the FY16 Omnibus for NASA’s exploration programs. We are deeply concerned about the Administration’s proposed cut to NASA’s human exploration development programs.”
“This proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA’s exploration missions, and would have detrimental impacts on cornerstone, game-changing programs such as the super-heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion spacecraft – the first spacecraft designed to reach multiple destinations in the human exploration of deep space.”
On Dec. 18, 2015, the US Congress passed and the president signed the 2016 omnibus spending bill which funds the US government through the remainder of the 2016 Fiscal Year.
As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounted to nearly $19.3 Billion. That was an outstanding result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier in 2015.
The 2016 budget represented an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.
In the wake of NASA’s supremely successful inaugural test flight of the Oriondeep space capsule on the EFT-1 mission in Dec. 2014, NASA is beefing up the critical thermal protection system (TPS) that will protect astronauts from the searing heats experienced during reentry as the human rated vehicle plunges through the Earth’s atmosphere after returning from ambitious expeditions to the Moon and beyond.
Based in part on lessons learned from EFT-1, engineers are refining Orion’s heat shield to enhance the design, ease manufacturing procedures and significantly strengthen is heat resistant capabilities for the far more challenging space environments and missions that lie ahead later this decade and planned further out in the future as part of NASA’s agency-wide ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.
The first manned flight of NASA’s Orion deep space capsule – currently under development – could slip two years from 2021 to 2023 due to a variety of budget and technical issues, top NASA officials announced on Wednesday, Sept. 16.
The potential two year postponement of Orion’s first flight with astronauts follows on the heels of the agency’s recently completed rigorous review of the programs status from a budgetary, technical, engineering, safety and risk assessment analysis of the vehicles systems and subsystems.
Based on the budget available and all the work remaining to be accomplished, liftoff of the first Orion test flight with an astronaut crew is likely to occur “no later than April 2023,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at the Sept. 16 briefing for reporters.
NASA had been marching towards an August 2021 liftoff for the maiden crewed Orion on a test flight dubbed Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), until Lightfoot’s announcement.
Lightfoot added that although August 2021 is still NASA’s officially targeted launch date for EM-2, achieving that early goal is not likely as a direct result of the program review.
“The team is still working toward a launch in August 2021, but have much less confidence in achieving that. But we are not changing that date for EM-2 at this time.”
“But we’re committing that we’ll be no later than April 2023.”
“It’s not a very high confidence level [on making the August 2021 launch date], I’ll tell you that, just because of the things we see historically pop up.”
Orion is being developed by NASA to send America’s astronauts on journeys venturing farther into deep space than ever before – back to the Moon first and then beyond to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System.
Orion’s likely launch slip is the direct fallout from NASA’s recently completed internal program review called Key Decision Point C (KDP-C).
The KDC-P review assesses all the technological work and advancements required for launch to design, develop and manufacture Orion and that can be accomplished based on the Federal budget that will be available to carry out the program successfully.
“The KDC-P analysis just completed and decision to move forward with the Orion program is based on a 70% confidence level of success,” notes Lightfoot.
“The budget is a factor in the timing for the projection. It is based on the President’s current budget.”
“The decision commits NASA to a development cost baseline of $6.77 billion from October 2015 through the first crewed mission (EM-2) and a commitment to be ready for a launch with astronauts no later than April 2023.”
“EM-2 is a full up Orion on a human mission,” he said.
The EM-2 mission would last about 3 weeks and fly in a lunar retrograde orbit. It would carry astronauts beyond the Moon and further out into space than ever before.
Prior to EM-2, Orion’s next test flight is the uncrewed EM-1 mission targeted to launch no later than November 2018 – from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.
EM-1 will blastoff on the inaugural launch of NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift booster concurrently under development. The SLS will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.
Orion learned a lot from EFT-1 and the lessons learned are being incorporated into the EM-1 and EM-2 missions.
Among the very few changes is an alteration in the heat shield from a monolithic to a block design that will vastly simplify its manufacture.
“We are making the heat shield change as a result of what we leaned on EFT-1,” said William Gerstenmaier, the agency’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters, at the briefing.
“The Orion Program has done incredible work, progressing every day and meeting milestones to prepare for our next missions. The team will keep working toward an earlier readiness date for a first crewed flight, but will be ready no later than April 2023, and we will keep the spacecraft, rocket and ground systems moving at their own best possible paces.”
Some members of Congress and others have said that delays in the Orion and SLS program are also a direct result of funding shortfalls caused by budget cuts in the programs, and condemned the Obama Administrations 2016 NASA budget request.
In fact, the Obama Administration did request $440 million less in the 2016 NASA budget request vs. the 2015 request.
“Once again, the Obama administration is choosing to delay deep space exploration priorities such as Orion and the Space Launch System that will take U.S. astronauts to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, said Rep Lamar Smith (R-Texas) House Committee Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
“While this administration has consistently cut funding for these programs and delayed their development, Congress has consistently restored funding as part of our commitment to maintaining American leadership in space,” said Chairman Smith.
“We must chart a compelling course for our nation’s space program so that we can continue to inspire future generations of scientists, engineers and explorers. I urge this administration to follow the lead of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s NASA Authorization Act to fully fund NASA’s exploration programs.”
Smith added that he “has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for failure to request adequate funding for Orion and the Space Launch System; the administration’s FY16 budget request proposed cuts of more than $440 million for the programs.”
“The House Science Committee’s NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017 sought to restore $440 million to these crucial programs being developed to return U.S. astronauts to deep space destinations such as the Moon and Mars. That bill also restored funding for planetary science accounts that have been responsible for missions such as the recent Pluto fly-by, and provided full funding for the other space exploration programs such as Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo programs.”
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden formally announced the rollout of NASA’s FY 2016 budget request today during a “state of the agency” address at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), back dropped by the three vehicles at the core of the agency’s human spaceflight exploration strategy; Orion, the Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon.
“To further advance these plans and keep on moving forward on our journey to Mars, President Obama today is proposing an FY 2016 budget of $18.5 billion for NASA, building on the significant investments the administration has made in America’s space program over the past six years,” Administrator Bolden said to NASA workers and the media gathered at the KSC facility where Orion is being manufactured.
“These vehicles are not things just on paper anymore! This is tangible evidence of what you [NASA] have been doing these past few years.”
Bolden said the $18.5 Billion budget request will enable the continuation of core elements of NASA’s main programs including first launch of the new commercial crew vehicles to orbit in 2017, maintaining the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to further NASA’s initiative to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s, extending the International Space Station (ISS) into the next decade, and launching the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. JWST is the long awaited successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
“NASA is firmly on a journey to Mars. Make no mistake, this journey will help guide and define our generation.”
Funding is also provided to enable the manned Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by around 2025, to continue development of the next Mars rover, and to continue formulation studies of a robotic mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.
“That’s a half billion-dollar increase over last year’s enacted budget, and it is a clear vote of confidence in you – the employees of NASA – and the ambitious exploration program you are executing,” said Bolden.
Overall the additional $500 million for FY 2016 translates to a 2.7% increase over FY 2015. That compares to about a 6.4% proposed boost for the overall US Federal Budget amounting to $4 Trillion.
The Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon V2 will restore the US capability to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
In September 2014, Bolden announced the selections of Boeing and SpaceX to continue development and certification of their proposed spaceships under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and Launch America initiative started back in 2010.
Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, all NASA astronauts have been totally dependent on Russia and their Soyuz capsule as the sole source provider for seats to the ISS.
“The commercial crew vehicles are absolutely critical to our journey to Mars, absolutely critical. SpaceX and Boeing have set up operations here on the Space Coast, bringing jobs, energy and excitement about the future with them. They will increase crew safety and drive down costs.”
CCP gets a hefty and needed increase from $805 Million in FY 2015 to $1.244 Billion in FY 2016.
To date the Congress has not fully funded the Administration’s CCP funding requests, since its inception in 2010.
The significant budget slashes amounting to 50% or more by Congress, have forced NASA to delay the first commercial crew flights of the private ‘space taxis’ from 2015 to 2017.
As a result, NASA has also been forced to continue paying the Russians for crew flights aboard the Soyuz that now cost over $70 million each under the latest contract signed with Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.
Bolden has repeatedly stated that NASA’s overriding goal is to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.
To accomplish the ‘Journey to Mars’ NASA is developing the Orion deep space crew capsule and mammoth SLS rocket.
However, both programs had their budgets cut in the FY 2016 proposal compared to FY 2015. The 2015 combined total of $3.245 Billion is reduced in 2016 to $2.863 Billion, or over 10%.
The first test flight of an unmanned Orion atop the SLS is now slated for liftoff on Nov. 2018, following NASA’s announcement of a launch delay from the prior target of December 2017.
Since the Journey to Mars goal is already underfunded, significant cuts will hinder progress.
This comes despite the fact that the renowned robot just reached the summit of a Martian mountain at Cape Tribulation and is now less than 200 meters from a science goldmine of water altered minerals.
Funding for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is also zeroed out in FY 2016.
Both missions continue to function quite well with very valuable science returns. They were also zeroed out in FY 2015 but received continued funding after a senior level science review.
So their ultimate fate is unknown at this time.
Overall, Bolden was very upbeat about NASA’s future.
“I can unequivocally say that the state of NASA is strong,” Bolden said.
He concluded his remarks saying:
“Because of the dedication and determination of each and every one of you in our NASA Family, America’s space program is not just alive, it is thriving! Together with our commercial and international partners, academia and entrepreneurs, we’re launching the future. With the continued support of the Administration, the Congress and the American people, we’ll all get there together.”
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
NASA’s goal of sending astronauts to deep space took a major step forward when the first engine of the type destined to power the mighty Space Launch System (SLS) exploration rocket blazed to life during a successful test firing at the agency’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
The milestone hot fire test conducted on Jan. 9, involved igniting a shuttle-era RS-25 space shuttle main engine for 500 seconds on the A-1 test stand at Stennis.
A quartet of RS-25s, formerly used to power the space shuttle orbiters, will now power the core stage of the SLS which will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen.
“The RS-25 is the most efficient engine of its type in the world,” said Steve Wofford, manager of the SLS Liquid Engines Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama, where the SLS Program is managed. “It’s got a remarkable history of success and a great experience base that make it a great choice for NASA’s next era of exploration.”
The SLS is NASA’s mammoth heavy lift rocket now under development. It is intended to launch the Orion deep space crew capsule and propel astronauts aboard to destinations far beyond Earth and farther into space than ever before possible – beyond the Moon, to Asteroids and Mars.
The over eight minute RS-25 engine test firing provided NASA engineers with critical data on the engine controller unit, which is the “brain” of the engine providing communications between the engine and the vehice, and inlet pressure conditions.
“The controller also provides closed-loop management of the engine by regulating the thrust and fuel mixture ratio while monitoring the engine’s health and status. The new controller will use updated hardware and software configured to operate with the new SLS avionics architecture,” according to NASA.
This also marked the first test of a shuttle-era RS-25 since the conclusion of space shuttle main engine testing in 2009.
For the SLS, the RS-25 will be configured and operated differently from their use when attached as a trio to the base of the orbiters during NASA’s four decade long Space Shuttle era that ended with the STS-135 mission in July 2011.
“We’ve made modifications to the RS-25 to meet SLS specifications and will analyze and test a variety of conditions during the hot fire series,” said Wofford
“The engines for SLS will encounter colder liquid oxygen temperatures than shuttle; greater inlet pressure due to the taller core stage liquid oxygen tank and higher vehicle acceleration; and more nozzle heating due to the four-engine configuration and their position in-plane with the SLS booster exhaust nozzles.”
Watch this video of the RS-25 engine test:
Video Caption: The RS-25 engine that will drive NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, to deep space blazed through its first successful test Jan. 9 at the agency’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA TV
The SLS core stage stores the cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that fuel the RS-25 first stage engines.
“This first hot-fire test of the RS-25 engine represents a significant effort on behalf of Stennis Space Center’s A-1 test team,” said Ronald Rigney, RS-25 project manager at Stennis.
“Our technicians and engineers have been working diligently to design, modify and activate an extremely complex and capable facility in support of RS-25 engine testing.”
The Jan. 9 engine test was just the first of an extensive series planned. After an upgrade to the high pressure cooling system, an initial series of eight development tests will begin in April 2015 totaling 3,500 seconds of firing time.
The SLS core stage is being built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
On Sept. 12, 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveiled the world’s largest welder at Michoud, that will be used to construct the core stage, as I reported earlier during my on-site visit.
“This rocket is a game changer in terms of deep space exploration and will launch NASA astronauts to investigate asteroids and explore the surface of Mars while opening new possibilities for science missions, as well,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Michoud.
The core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall and sports a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m).
The maiden test flight of the SLS is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.
NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.
The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.
Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.