NASA mega moon rocket passes major test

19 Mar 2021

Hot fire test in January. Image: © Danny Nowlin/NASA

NASA hopes to launch Artemis I later this year as an uncrewed flight and is aiming to send humans back to the moon by 2024.

Humans are one step closer to going back to the moon, after NASA successfully completed a major milestone in its latest rocket test.

The core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the largest rocket element the space agency has ever built, fired its four engines at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi yesterday (18 March).

The so-called hot fire test is a critical milestone ahead of NASA’s Artemis I mission. It is the final test of the Green Run test series, a comprehensive assessment of the SLS’s core stage.

The space agency aims to send an uncrewed spacecraft on a test flight around the moon and back to Earth, which is scheduled to take place later this year.

NASA had already conducted a hot fire test of the SLS rocket earlier this year. However, the engines inexplicably shut down after a little more than one minute.

After analysing the data from the test, agency officials said the shutdown was “triggered by test parameters that were intentionally conservative to ensure the safety of the core stage during the test”.

‘An important milestone’

Yesterday’s second hot fire test ran for more than eight minutes, which will be the duration required for moon launches.

NASA said it tested a variety of operational conditions, including moving the four engines in specific patterns to direct thrust and powering the engines up to 109pc power, throttling down and back up, as they would during flight.

John Honeycutt, manager of the SLS programme at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said the second test provided the “wealth of data” needed.

“During this test, the team conducted new operations with the core stage for the first time, repeated some critical operations, and recorded test data that will help us verify the core stage is ready for the first and future SLS flights for NASA’s Artemis programme,” he said.

The uncrewed test flight planned for later this year is part of NASA’s programme to return humans to the moon by 2024. Acting NASA administrator Steve Jurczyk added that the latest hot fire test is “an important milestone” in NASA’s goal.

“The SLS is the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built,” he said. “The SLS is an incredible feat of engineering and the only rocket capable of powering America’s next-generation missions that will place the first woman and the next man on the moon.”

Next, the core stage for SLS will be refurbished, then shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There, the core stage will be assembled with the solid rocket boosters and other parts of the rocket and NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

Reuters reports that the SLS programme is three years behind schedule and nearly $3bn over budget.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic