Ion Propulsion: The Key to Deep Space Exploration

The comforting blue glow of an ion drive. Image Credit: NASA

When we think of space travel, we tend to picture a massive rocket blasting off from Earth, with huge blast streams of fire and smoke coming out the bottom, as the enormous machine struggles to escape Earth’s gravity. Rockets are our only option for escaping Earth’s gravity well—for now. But once a spacecraft has broken its gravitational bond with Earth, we have other options for powering them. Ion propulsion, long dreamed of in science fiction, is now used to send probes and spacecraft on long journeys through space.

NASA first began researching ion propulsion in the 1950’s. In 1998, ion propulsion was successfully used as the main propulsion system on a spacecraft, powering the Deep Space 1 (DS1) on its mission to the asteroid 9969 Braille and Comet Borrelly. DS1 was designed not only to visit an asteroid and a comet, but to test twelve advanced, high-risk technologies, chief among them the ion propulsion system itself.

Ion propulsion systems generate a tiny amount of thrust. Hold nine quarters in your hand, feel Earth’s gravity pull on them, and you have an idea how little thrust they generate. They can’t be used for launching spacecraft from bodies with strong gravity. Their strength lies in continuing to generate thrust over time. This means that they can achieve very high top speeds. Ion thrusters can propel spacecraft to speeds over 320,000 kp/h (200,000 mph), but they must be in operation for a long time to achieve that speed.

An ion is an atom or a molecule that has either lost or gained an electron, and therefore has an electrical charge. So ionization is the process of giving a charge to an atom or a molecule, by adding or removing electrons. Once charged, an ion will want to move in relation to a magnetic field. That’s at the heart of ion drives. But certain atoms are better suited for this. NASA’s ion drives typically use xenon, an inert gas, because there’s no risk of explosion.

Detail of an ion drive. Image: NASA Glenn Research Center. Vectorization by Chabacano
Detail of an ion drive. Image: NASA Glenn Research Center. Vectorization by Chabacano

In an ion drive, the xenon isn’t a fuel. It isn’t combusted, and it has no inherent properties that make it useful as a fuel. The energy source for an ion drive has to come from somewhere else. This source can be electricity from solar cells, or electricity generated from decay heat from a nuclear material.

Ions are created by bombarding the xenon gas with high energy electrons. Once charged, these ions are drawn through a pair of electrostatic grids—called lenses—by their charges, and are expelled out of the chamber, producing thrust. This discharge is called the ion beam, and it is again injected with electrons, to neutralize its charge. Here’s a short video showing how ion drives work:

 

Unlike a traditional chemical rocket, where its thrust is limited by how much fuel it can carry and burn, the thrust generated by an ion drive is only limited by the strength of its electrical source. The amount of propellant a craft can carry, in this case xenon, is a secondary concern. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft used only 10 ounces of xenon propellant—that’s less than a soda can—for 27 hours of operation.

NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster. Image Credit: NASA
NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster. Image Credit: NASA

In theory, there is no limit to the strength of the electrical source powering the drive, and work is being done to develop even more powerful ion thrusters than we currently have. In 2012, NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) operated at 7000w for over 43,000 hours, in comparison to the ion drive on DS1 that used only 2100w. NEXT, and designs that will surpass it in the future, will allow spacecraft to go on extended missions to multiple asteroids, comets, the outer planets, and their moons.

Missions using ion propulsion include NASA’s Dawn mission, the Japanese Hayabusa mission to asteroid 25143 Itokawa, and the upcoming ESA missions Bepicolombo, which will head to Mercury in 2017, and LISA Pathfinder, which will study low frequency gravitational waves.

With the constant improvement in ion propulsion systems, this list will only grow.

NASA’s Space Launch System Passes Critical Design Review, Drops Saturn V Color Motif

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC
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The SLS, America’s first human-rated heavy lift rocket intended to carry astronauts to deep space destinations since NASA’s Apollo moon landing era Saturn V, has passed a key design milestone known as the critical design review (CDR) thereby clearing the path to full scale fabrication.

NASA also confirmed they have dropped the Saturn V white color motif of the mammoth rocket in favor of burnt orange to reflect the natural color of the SLS boosters first stage cryogenic core. The agency also decided to add stripes to the huge solid rocket boosters.

NASA announced that the Space Launch System (SLS) has “completed all steps needed to clear a critical design review (CDR)” – meaning that the design of all the rockets components are technically acceptable and the agency can continue with full scale production towards achieving a maiden liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2018.

“We’ve nailed down the design of SLS,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division, in a NASA statement.

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration on the Mobile Launcher at KSC. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration on the Mobile Launcher at KSC. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Blastoff of the NASA’s first SLS heavy lift booster (SLS-1) carrying an unmanned test version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule is targeted for no later than November 2018.

Indeed the SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen starting with its first liftoff. It will propel our astronauts on journey’s further into space than ever before.

SLS is “the first vehicle designed to meet the challenges of the journey to Mars and the first exploration class rocket since the Saturn V.”

Crews seated inside NASA’s Orion crew module bolted atop the SLS will rocket to deep space destinations including the Moon, asteroids and eventually the Red Planet.

“There have been challenges, and there will be more ahead, but this review gives us confidence that we are on the right track for the first flight of SLS and using it to extend permanent human presence into deep space,” Hill stated.

The core stage (first stage) of the SLS will be powered by four RS-25 engines and a pair of five-segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust in its inaugural Block 1 configuration, with a minimum 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capability.

Overall the SLS Block 1 configuration will be some 10 percent more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that propelled astronauts to the Moon, including Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon during Apollo 11 in July 1969.

Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC

The SLS core stage is derived from the huge External Tank (ET) that fueled NASA Space Shuttle’s for three decades. It is a longer version of the Shuttle ET.

NASA initially planned to paint the SLS core stage white, thereby making it resemble the Saturn V.

But since the natural manufacturing color of its insulation during fabrication is burnt orange, managers decided to keep it so and delete the white paint job.

“As part of the CDR, the program concluded the core stage of the rocket and Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter will remain orange, the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements, instead of painted white,” said NASA.

There is good reason to scrap the white color motif because roughly 1000 pounds of paint can be saved by leaving the tank with its natural orange pigment.

This translates directly into another 1000 pounds of payload carrying capability to orbit.

“Not applying the paint will reduce the vehicle mass by potentially as much as 1,000 pounds, resulting in an increase in payload capacity, and additionally streamlines production processes,” Shannon Ridinger, NASA Public Affairs spokeswomen told Universe Today.

After the first two shuttle launches back in 1981, the ETs were also not painted white for the same reason – in order to carry more cargo to orbit.

“This is similar to what was done for the external tank for the space shuttle. The space shuttle was originally painted white for the first two flights and later a technical study found painting to be unnecessary,” Ridinger explained.

Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements.  Credits: NASA
Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. Credits: NASA

NASA said that the CDR was completed by the SLS team in July and the results were also further reviewed over several more months by a panel of outside experts and additionally by top NASA managers.

“The SLS Program completed the review in July, in conjunction with a separate review by the Standing Review Board, which is composed of seasoned experts from NASA and industry who are independent of the program. Throughout the course of 11 weeks, 13 teams – made up of senior engineers and aerospace experts across the agency and industry – reviewed more than 1,000 SLS documents and more than 150 GB of data as part of the comprehensive assessment process at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where SLS is managed for the agency.”

“The Standing Review Board reviewed and assessed the program’s readiness and confirmed the technical effort is on track to complete system development and meet performance requirements on budget and on schedule.”

The final step of the SLS CDR was completed this month with another extremely thorough assessment by NASA’s Agency Program Management Council, led by NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

“This is a major step in the design and readiness of SLS,” said John Honeycutt, SLS program manager.

The CDR was the last of four reviews that examine SLS concepts and designs.

NASA says the next step “is design certification, which will take place in 2017 after manufacturing, integration and testing is complete. The design certification will compare the actual final product to the rocket’s design. The final review, the flight readiness review, will take place just prior to the 2018 flight readiness date.”

“Our team has worked extremely hard, and we are moving forward with building this rocket. We are qualifying hardware, building structural test articles, and making real progress,” Honeycutt elaborated.

Numerous individual components of the SLS core stage have already been built and their manufacture was part of the CDR assessment.

The SLS core stage is being built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It stretches over 200 feet tall and is 27.6 feet in diameter and will carry cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel for the rocket’s four RS-25 engines.

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 – here.

The first stage RS-25 engines have also completed their first round of hot firing tests. And the five segment solid rocket boosters has also been hot fired.

NASA decided that the SRBs will be painted with something like racing stripes.

“Stripes will be painted on the SRBs and we are still identifying the best process for putting them on the boosters; we have multiple options that have minimal impact to cost and payload capability, ” Ridinger stated.

With the successful completion of the CDR, the components of the first core stage can now proceed to assembly of the finished product and testing of the RS-25 engines and boosters can continue.

“We’ve successfully completed the first round of testing of the rocket’s engines and boosters, and all the major components for the first flight are now in production,” Hill explained.

View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop  Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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 (KSC).

The SLS/Orion stack will roll out to pad 39B atop the Mobile Launcher now under construction – as detailed in my recent story and during visit around and to the top of the ML at KSC.

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.   The ML will support NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Ken Kremer

Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA Tests Orion’s Fate During Parachute Failure Scenario

What would happen to the astronaut crews aboard NASA’s Orion deep space capsule in the event of parachute failures in the final moments before splashdown upon returning from weeks to years long forays to the Moon, Asteroids or Mars?

NASA teams are evaluating Orion’s fate under multiple scenarios in case certain of the ships various parachute systems suffer partial deployment failures after the blistering high speed reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Orion is nominally outfitted with multiple different parachute systems including two drogue chutes and three main chutes that are essential for stabilizing and slowing the crewed spacecraft for safely landing in the Pacific Ocean upon concluding a NASA ‘Journey to Mars’ mission.”

This week engineers from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin ran a dramatic and successful six mile high altitude drop test in the skies over the Arizona desert, in the instance where one of the parachutes in each of Orion’s drogue and main systems was intentionally set to fail.

“We test Orion’s parachutes to the extremes to ensure we have a safe system for bringing crews back to Earth on future flights, even if something goes wrong,” says CJ Johnson, project manager for Orion’s parachute system, in a statement.

“Orion’s parachute performance is difficult to model with computers, so putting them to the test in the air helps us better evaluate and predict how the system works.”

Although Orion hits the atmosphere at over 24,000 mph after returning from deep space, it slows significantly after atmospheric reentry.

By the time the first parachutes normally deploy, the crew module has decelerated to some 300 mph. Their job is to slow the craft down to about 20 mph by the time of ocean splashdown mere minutes later.

On Aug. 26, NASA conducted a 35,000 foot high drop test out of the cargo bay of a C-17 aircraft using an engineering test version of the Orion capsule over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona.

“The engineering model has a mass similar to that of the Orion capsule being developed for deep space missions, and similar interfaces with its parachute system,” say officials.

“Engineers purposefully simulated a failure scenario in which one of the two drogue parachutes, used to slow and stabilize Orion at high altitude, and one of its three main parachutes, used to slow the crew module to landing speed, did not deploy.”

Here’s a video detailing the entire drop test sequence of events from preflight preparations to the parachute landing.

The high-risk Aug. 26 experiment was NASA’s penultimate drop test in this engineering evaluations series. A new series of tests in 2016 will serve to qualify the parachute system for crewed flights.

Engineers prepare to test the parachute system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona on Aug. 26, 2015 by loading a test version on a C-17 aircraft. Credit: NASA
Engineers prepare to test the parachute system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona on Aug. 26, 2015 by loading a test version on a C-17 aircraft. Credit: NASA

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.

The parachutes operated flawlessly during the Orion EFT-1 mission.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion’s next launch is set for the uncrewed test flight called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). It will blast off on the inaugural flight of NASA’s SLS heavy lift monster rocket concurrently under development – from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

The maiden SLS test flight 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.

Toward that goal, NASA is also currently testing the RS-25 first stage engines that will power SLS – as outlined in my recent story here.

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.

Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Parachutes are stowed atop Orion
Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about MUOS-4 USAF launch, Orion, SLS, SpaceX, Boeing, ULA, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orbital ATK, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Aug 31- Sep 2: “MUOS-4 launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

‘One Direction’ Heads to Space in new NASA Themed Music Video – ‘Drag Me Down’

When it comes to space exploration it’s resoundingly clear that rock band ‘One Direction’ is headed in the right direction – To Infinity and Beyond! – with the release of their new NASA themed music video ‘Drag Me Down.’

The new single – ‘Drag Me Down’ – by the world famous boy band is out now and out of this world!

Just click on the Vevo video above and enjoy their musical tour through space exploration themed videos filmed on location at NASA facilities, including the Johnson Space Center – home to astronauts training to explore ‘Where No One Has Gone Before.’

Over 18,100,000 views so far!! Millions of eyeballs exposed to NASA activities like never before!

As you’ll see in the video (published on Aug. 20) the quartet got a first hand look at a host of NASA’s cutting edge technology and hardware like NASA’s Orion deep space crew capsule that’s destined to propel our astronauts back to deep space and explore wondrous destinations including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet, as part of the agency’s ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative.

Motivating our young people to study and excel in math, science, engineering, technology and the arts is what it’s all about to inspire the next generation of explorers and advance all humanity to fulfilling and prosperous lives.

“#DragMeDownMusicVideo @space_station Gravity can’t drag me down! Great to see @NASA inspire our next gen #YearInSpace,” tweeted NASA astronaut Scott Kelly currently working aboard the International Space Station.

Lets join “One Direction’s” space tour.

So the guys donned NASA’s spacesuits as they began ‘training’ to fly aboard NASA’s Orion spaceship.

One Direction crew in spacesuits
One Direction crew in spacesuits

Orion flew its first uncrewed mission on the EFT-1 flight in December 2014, launching aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Harry, Niall, Louis and Liam all got suited up to check out and sit inside an Orion trainer. Next you’ll see them ‘blast off’ for space atop the Delta IV rocket from the Florida Space Coast in their music video.

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But first they rollick with the astronauts T-38 training jets which are used by real-life astronauts to practice spacecraft operations at supersonic speeds up to Mach 1.6 and experience blistering accelerations of more than seven Gs!

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Here we join Louis to rove around Johnson Space Center in NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle that will one day be used for awe-inspiring interplanetary journey’s to the surface of alien bodies like the moon, near-Earth asteroids and Mars!

Even though Louis is roving around Johnson Space Center in our Space Exploration Vehicle, its intended destination is quite different. The SEV will be used for in-space missions and for surface explorations of planetary bodies, including near-Earth asteroids and Mars!
Even though Louis is roving around Johnson Space Center in our Space Exploration Vehicle, its intended destination is quite different. The SEV will be used for in-space missions and for surface explorations of planetary bodies, including near-Earth asteroids and Mars!

Wouldn’t you like to join Louis!

Meanwhile Harry got to hang out with Robonaut at the Johnson Space Center during the filming of the music video.

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Simultaneously the Robonauts twin brother, Robonaut 2, is hanging out in space right now with other humans. Robonaut 2 is working side-by-side with NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren and the rest of the six man crew floating aboard the International Space Station and soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) overhead.

“Going where the risks are too great for people, robots will make it so we never get ‘dragged down’!” says NASA.

“Currently living in space, @StationCDRKelly is 1 of 6 people that literally cannot be dragged down. #DragMeDown,” NASA tweeted.

The twin brother of the R2 Robonaut launched to the ISS on Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission, its 39th and final flight to space. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The twin brother of the R2 Robonaut launched to the ISS on Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission, its 39th and final flight to space. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

And here’s Niall experiencing reduced gravity in the Partial Gravity Simulator & Space Station Mockup Bike. This simulator is where astronauts learn how to work effectively in the partial gravity of space and on the surface of other worlds

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I’ve been a fan of ‘One Direction’ and now nothing will ‘hold me back’ following #DragMeDown.

And don’t forget that you can watch Commander Scott Kelly and his five international crew mates on a regular basis as they soar overhead. Just click on NASA’s Spot the Station link and plug in your location.

And make sure you sign up to ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ on InSight – NASA’s next Mars Lander. The deadline is Sept 8 sign up details in my story here.

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.

Here’s what the real Orion EFT-1 looked like after the mission was successfully completed and it was recovered from splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Right now NASA is building the next Orion.

If you desire to be aboard a future Orion, don’t let anything ‘Drag You Down.’

And tell Congress and the White House to ‘Support Full Funding for NASA!’ – – Because Congress has significantly slashed funding for the commercial crew capsules in the upcoming 2016 Fiscal Year budget!

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Milestone Test Firing of NASA’s SLS Monster Rocket Engine Advances Human Path to Deep Space

During a 535-second test on August 13, 2015, operators ran the Space Launch System (SLS) RS-25 rocket engine through a series of tests at different power levels to collect engine performance data on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA
Story/imagery updated
See video below of full duration hot-fire test
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With today’s (Aug. 13) successful test firing of an RS-25 main stage engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) monster rocket currently under development, the program passed a key milestone advancing the agency on the path to propel astronauts back to deep space at the turn of the decade.

The 535 second long test firing of the RS-25 development engine was conducted on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi – and ran for the planned full duration of nearly 9 minutes, matching the time they will fire during an actual SLS launch.

All indications are that the hot fire test apparently went off without a hitch, on first look.

“We ran the full duration and met all test objectives,” said Steve Wofford, SLS engine manager, on NASA TV following today’s’ test firing.

“There were no anomalies.” – based on the initial look.

The RS-25 is actually an upgraded version of former space shuttle main engines that were used with a 100% success rate during NASA’s three decade-long Space Shuttle program to propel the now retired shuttle orbiters to low Earth orbit. Those same engines are now being modified for use by the SLS.

Spectators enjoy the view during the Aug. 13, 2015 test firing of the RS-25 engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  Credit: NASA
Spectators enjoy the view during the Aug. 13, 2015 test firing of the RS-25 engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA

“Data collected on performance of the engine at the various power levels will aid in adapting the former space shuttle engines to the new SLS vehicle mission requirements, including development of an all-new engine controller and software,” according to NASA officials .

The engine controller functions as the “brain” of the engine, which checks engine status, maintains communication between the vehicle and the engine and relays commands back and forth.

The core stage (first stage) of the SLS will be powered by four RS-25 engines and a pair of the five-segment solid rocket boosters that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust, making it the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen.

Since shuttle orbiters were equipped with three space shuttle main engines, the use of four RS-25s on the SLS represents another significant change that also required many modifications being thoroughly evaluated as well.

RS-25 test firing in progress on the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Aug. 13, 2015.  Credit: NASA
RS-25 test firing in progress on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Aug. 13, 2015. Credit: NASA

The SLS will be some 10 percent more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that propelled astronauts to the Moon, including Neil Armstrong, the human to walk on the Moon during Apollo 11 in July 1969.

SLS will loft astronauts in the Orion capsule on missions back to the Moon by around 2021, to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal.

Each of the RS-25’s engines generates some 500,000 pounds of thrust. They are fueled by cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. For SLS they will be operating at 109% of power, compared to a routine usage of 104.5% during the shuttle era. They measure 14 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.

They have to withstand and survive temperature extremes ranging from -423 degrees F to more than 6000 degrees F.

This video shows the full duration hot-fire test:

NASA has 16 of the RS-25s leftover from the shuttle era and they are all being modified and upgraded for use by the SLS rocket.

Today’s test was the sixth in a series of seven to qualify the modified engines to flight status. The engine ignited at 5:01 p.m. EDT and reached the full thrust level of 512,000 pounds within about 5 seconds.

The hot gas was exhausted out of the nozzle at 13 times the speed of sound.

Since the shuttle engines were designed and built over three decades ago, they are being modified where possible with state of the art components to enhance performance, functionality and ease of operation, by prime contractor Aerojet-Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California.

One of the key objectives of today’s engine firing and the entire hot fire series was to test the performance of a brand new engine controller assembled with modern manufacturing techniques.

“Operators on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis are conducting the test series to qualify an all-new engine controller and put the upgraded former space shuttle main engines through the rigorous temperature and pressure conditions they will experience during a SLS mission,” says NASA.

“The new controller, or “brain,” for the engine, which monitors engine status and communicates between the vehicle and the engine, relaying commands to the engine and transmitting data back to the vehicle. 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.’

Video caption: RS-25 – The Ferrari of Rocket Engines explained. Credit: NASA

“The RS-25 is the most complicated rocket engine out there on the market, but that’s because it’s the Ferrari of rocket engines,” says Kathryn Crowe, RS-25 propulsion engineer.

“When you’re looking at designing a rocket engine, there are several different ways you can optimize it. You can optimize it through increasing its thrust, increasing the weight to thrust ratio, or increasing its overall efficiency and how it consumes your propellant. With this engine, they maximized all three.”

Engineers will now pour over the data collected from hundreds of data channels in great detail to thoroughly analyze the test results. They will incorporate any findings into future test firings of the RS-25s.

NASA says that testing of RS-25 flight engines is set to start later this fall.

“The RS-25 engine gives SLS a proven, high performance, affordable main propulsion system for deep space exploration. It is one of the most experienced large rocket engines in the world, with more than a million seconds of ground test and flight operations time.”

NASA plans to buy completely new sets of RS-25 engines from Aerojet-Rocketdyne taking full advantage of technological advances and modern manufacturing techniques as well as lessons learned from this hot fire series of engine tests.

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.

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration.  Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration. Credit: NASA

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.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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.

Ken Kremer

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Most Powerful Solid Rocket Booster Ignites in Milestone Test, Propelling NASA on Path to Deep Space

At the Orbital ATK test facility, the booster for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket was fired for a two minute test on March 11. The test is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight before SLS begins carrying NASA’s Orion spacecraft and other potential payloads to deep space destinations. Image Credit: NASA
Watch the complete test firing video below[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s goal of sending humans back to deep space in the next decade advanced a major step forward today, March 11, with the successful ground test firing of the largest and most powerful solid rocket booster ever built that will be used to propel NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and manned Orion spacecraft to destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

The two minute long, full duration static test firing of the motor marked a major milestone in the ongoing development of NASA’s SLS booster, which is the most powerful rocket ever built in human history.

The booster known as qualification motor, QM-1, is the world’s largest solid rocket motor and was ignited at about 11:30 a.m. EST by prime contractor Orbital ATK at the newly merged firms test facility in Promontory, Utah.

Video caption: Space Launch System Booster Passes Major Ground Test on Mar. 11, 2015. The 5 segment solid rocket booster being developed for the SLS rocket fired for two minutes, the same amount of time it will fire when it lifts the SLS off the launch pad, and produced about 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The test was conducted at the Promontory, Utah test facility of commercial partner Orbital ATK. Credit: NASA

It burned for exactly the same amount of time as it will during flights of the SLS booster which will lift off from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The booster test firing was the second of two major do or die tests conducted by NASA in the past three months in support of the agency’s “Journey to Mars” strategy to develop the infrastructure required to send astronauts to an asteroid in the next decade and beyond to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

“The work being done around the country today to build SLS is laying a solid foundation for future exploration missions, and these missions will enable us to pioneer far into the solar system,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in a statement.

“The teams are doing tremendous work to develop what will be a national asset for human exploration and potential science missions.”

Orbital ATK’s five segment rocket motor is assembled in its Promontory, Utah, test stand where it is being conditioned for the March 11 ground test.  Credit: Orbital ATK
Orbital ATK’s five segment rocket motor is assembled in its Promontory, Utah, test stand
where it is being conditioned for the March 11 ground test. Credit: Orbital ATK

The 5-segment booster produces 3.6 million lbs of maximum thrust which equates to more than 14 Boeing 747-400s at full takeoff power!

The new 5-segment booster was derived from the 4-segment booster used during NASA’s three decade long Space Shuttle program. One segment has been added and therefore the new, longer and more powerful booster must be requalified to launch the SLS and humans.

A second test is planned a year from now and will qualify the boosters for use with the SLS.

“This test is a significant milestone for SLS and follows years of development,” said Todd May, SLS program manager.

“Our partnership with Orbital ATK and more than 500 suppliers across the country is keeping us on the path to building the most powerful rocket in the world.”

Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. Credit: NASA
Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. Credit: NASA

The QM-1 booster weighs in at 1.6 million pounds and required several month of conditioning to heat to the 90 degrees temperature required to conduct the static fire test and thereby qualify the booster design for high temperature launch conditions. It was mounted horizontally in the test stand and measured 154 feet in length and 12 feet in diameter and weighs 801 tons.

Temperatures inside the booster exceeded over 5,600 degrees F.

The static fire test was exquisitely planned to collect data on 103 design objectives as measured through more than 534 instrumentation channels on the booster as it was firing.

The second booster test in March 2016 will be conducted to qualify the propellant temperature range at the lower end of the launch conditions at 40 degrees F.

The first stage of the SLS will be powered by a pair of the five-segment boosters and four RS-25 engines that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

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.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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.

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.

Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer
. ………….

Learn more about MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 11: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

World’s Most Powerful Solid Booster Set for Space Launch System Test Firing on March 11

All systems are go for the inaugural ground test firing on March 11 of the world’s most powerful solid rocket booster ever built that will one day power NASA’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and propel astronauts to deep space destinations.

The booster known as qualification motor, QM-1, is the largest solid rocket motor ever built and will be ignited on March 11 for a full duration static fire test by prime contractor Orbital ATK at the newly merged firms test facility in Promontory, Utah.

Ignition of the horizontally mounted motor is planned for 11:30 a.m. EDT (9:30 a.m. MDT) on Wednesday, March 11 on the T-97 test stand.

The test will be broadcast live on NASA TV.

Engineers at Orbital ATK in Promontory, Utah, prepare to test the booster that will help power NASA’s Space Launch System to space to begin missions to deep space, including to an asteroid and Mars. A test on March 11 is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight.  Image Credit:  Orbital ATK
Engineers at Orbital ATK in Promontory, Utah, prepare to test the booster that will help power NASA’s Space Launch System to space to begin missions to deep space, including to an asteroid and Mars. A test on March 11 is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight. Image Credit: Orbital ATK

The two minute long, full duration static test firing of the motor marks a major milestone in the ongoing development of NASA’s SLS booster, which is the most powerful rocket ever built in human history.

The 5-segment booster produces 3.6 million lbs of maximum thrust which equates to more than 14 Boeing 747-400s at full takeoff power!

The new 5-segment booster is directly derived from the 4-segment booster used during NASA’s three decade long Space Shuttle program. One segment has been added and therefore the new, longer and more powerful booster must be requalified to launch the SLS and humans.

A second test is planned a year from now and will qualify the boosters for use with the SLS.

Teams of engineers, operators, inspectors and program managers across Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group have spent months getting ready for the QM-1 test. To prepare they started countdown tests on Feb 25.

“The crew officially starts daily countdown test runs of the systems this week, at T-15 days,” said Kevin Rees, director, Test & Research Operations at Orbital ATK.

“These checks, along with other test stand calibrations, will verify all systems are ready for the static test. Our team is prepared and we are proud to play such a significant role on this program.”

The first qualification motor for NASA's Space Launch System's booster is installed in ATK's test stand in Utah and is ready for a March 11 static-fire test.   Credit:  ATK
The first qualification motor for NASA’s Space Launch System’s booster is installed in ATK’s test stand in Utah and is ready for a March 11 static-fire test. Credit: ATK

The QM-1 booster is being conditioned to 90 degrees and the static fire test will qualify the booster design for high temperature launch conditions. It sits horizontally in the test stand and measures 154 feet in length and 12 feet in diameter and weighs 801 tons.

The static fire test will collect data on 103 design objectives as measured through more than 534 instrumentation channels on the booster it is firing.

The second booster test in March 2016 will be conducted at lower temperature to qualify the lower end of the launch conditions at 40 degrees F.

The first stage of the SLS will be powered by a pair of the five-segment boosters and four RS-25 engines that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

The SLS is designed to propel the Orion crew capsule to deep space destinations, including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

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.

Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. Credit: NASA
Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. Credit: NASA

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.

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.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

. ………….

Learn more about MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 9-11: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Space Weather Storm Monitoring Satellite Blasts off for Deep Space on SpaceX Rocket

After a 17 year long wait, a new American mission to monitor intense solar storms and warn of impeding space weather disruptions to vital power grids, telecommunications satellites and public infrastructure was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Wednesday, Feb. 11, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start a million mile journey to its deep space observation post.

The third time proved to be the charm when the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite lifted off at 6:03 p.m. EST Wednesday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The spectacular sunset blastoff came after two scrubs this week forced by a technical problem with the Air Force tracking radar and adverse weather on Sunday and Tuesday.

The $340 million DSCOVR has a critical mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth at an observation point nearly a million miles from Earth. It will also take full disk color images of the sunlit side of Earth at least six times per day that will be publicly available and “wow” viewers.

Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: Julian Leek

The couch sized probe was targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft's position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)
The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft’s position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

The mission is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure such as power grids, aviation, planes in flight, all types of Earth orbiting satellites for civilian and military needs, telecommunications, ISS astronauts and GPS systems.

It will take about 150 days to reach the L1 point and complete satellite and instrument checkouts.

DSCOVR will then become the first operational space weather mission to deep space and function as America’s primary warning system for solar magnetic storms.

It will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

“DSCOVR is the latest example of how NASA and NOAA work together to leverage the vantage point of space to both understand the science of space weather and provide direct practical benefits to us here on Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard and the science was lost until now.

DSCOVR mission logo.  Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force
DSCOVR mission logo. Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

The 750-kilogram (1250 pound) DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

The two Earth science instruments from NASA are the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR).

EPIC will provide true color spectral images of the entire sunlit face of Earth at least six times per day, as viewed from an orbit around L1. They will be publically available within 24 hours via NASA Langley.

It will view the full disk of the entire sunlit Earth from sunrise to sunset and collect a variety of science measurements including on ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, vegetation properties, cloud heights and more.

Listen to my post launch interview with the BBC about DSCOVR and ESA’s successful IXV launch on Feb. 11.

A secondary objective by SpaceX to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge had to be skipped due to very poor weather and very high waves in the Atlantic Ocean making a safe landing impossible. The stage did successfully complete a soft landing in the ocean.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  John Studwell
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: John Studwell
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Chuck Higgins
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Chuck Higgins

First SLS Engine Blazes to Life in Mississippi Test Firing Igniting NASA’s Path to Deep Space

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.

A close-up view  of the RS-25 engine  from the test stand.  Credit: NASA
A close-up view of the RS-25 engine from the test stand. Credit: NASA

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).

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

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.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA Video Shows Astronaut’s-Eye View of “Trial by Fire” from Inside Orion EFT-1 on First Test Flight

Video Caption: New video recorded during NASA’s Orion return through Earth’s atmosphere provides viewers a taste of what the vehicle endured as it returned through Earth’s atmosphere during its Dec. 5 flight test. Credit: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Newly released NASA footage recorded during the first test flight of NASA’s Orion crew capsule this month gives an astronaut’s-eye view of what it would have been like for a crew riding along on the “Trial by Fire” as the vehicle began the fiery reentry through the Earth’s atmosphere and suffered scorching temperatures during the approximately ten minute plummet homewards and parachute assisted splashdown.

“The video provides a taste of the intense conditions the spacecraft and the astronauts it carries will endure when they return from deep space destinations on the journey to Mars,” NASA said in a statement.

The video was among the first data to be removed from Orion following its unpiloted Dec. 5 flight test and was recorded through windows in Orion’s crew module.

The Orion deep space test capsule reached an altitude of 3604 miles and the video starts with a view of the Earth’s curvature far different from what we’ve grown accustomed to from Space Shuttle flight and the International Space Station (ISS).

Then it transitions to the fiery atmospheric entry and effects from the superheated plasma, the continued descent, gorgeous series of parachute openings, and concludes with the dramatic splashdown.

Although parts of the video were transmitted back in real time and shown live on NASA TV, this is the first time that the complete video is available so that “the public can have an up-close look at the extreme environment a spacecraft experiences as it travels back through Earth’s environment from beyond low-Earth orbit.”

A portion of the video could not be sent back live because of the communications blackout that always occurs during reentry when the superheated plasma surrounds the vehicle as it endures peak heating up to 4000 F (2200 C) and prevents data downlink. Video footage “shows the plasma created by the interaction change from white to yellow to lavender to magenta as the temperature increases.”

The on-board cameras continued to operate all the way through the 10 minute reentry period to unfurling of the drogue and three main parachutes and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 11:29 a.m. EST at about 20 mph.

The Orion EFT-1 spacecraft was recovered from the Pacific by a combined team from NASA, the U.S. Navy, and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin and safely towed into the flooded well deck of the USS Anchorage.

The Orion spacecraft is guided into the well deck of the USS Anchorage during recovery operations following splashdown. Credit: U.S. Navy
The Orion spacecraft is guided into the well deck of the USS Anchorage during recovery operations following splashdown. Credit: U.S. Navy

It was brought to shore and off-loaded from the USS Anchorage at US Naval Base San Diego.

Orion was then hauled 2700 miles across the US from California on a flat bed truck for her homecoming arrival back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19 just prior to the Christmas holidays.

Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014, after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion’s inaugural test flight began with the flawless Dec. 5 launch as it soared to orbit atop the fiery fury of a 242 foot tall United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket – the world’s most powerful booster – at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Orion flew on its two orbit, 4.5 hour flight maiden test flight on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission that carried the capsule farther away from Earth than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has traveled in more than four decades.

Humans have not ventured beyond low Earth orbit since the launch of Apollo 17 on NASA’s final moon landing mission on Dec. 7, 1972.

EFT-1 tested the rocket, second stage, and jettison mechanisms as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, environmental controls and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft, heat shield, thermal protection tiles, and ocean recovery operations.

NASA intends that the EFT-1 test flight starts the agency on the long awaited road to send astronauts beyond Earth and eventually to Mars in the 2030s.

View of three core samples taken from the heat shield of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
View of three core samples taken from the heat shield of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center about the historic launch on Dec. 5.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com