Hopes of a return to deep space have been given a boost as NASA starts a new round of tests on its J-2X rocket engine.
The next-generation system will help power the agency's Space Launch System (SLS) to new destinations in the solar system and, beginning this month, engineers will conduct a series of tests on the second J-2X development engine, designated number 10002, on the A-2 Test Stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Once the series is completed, the engine will be transferred to the A-1 Test Stand to undergo a series of gimbal, or pivot, tests for the first time.
"The upcoming test series is not only a critical step forward, but important to the Stennis test team, as well," said Gary Benton, manager of the J-2X test project at Stennis. "This test series will help us increase our knowledge of the J-2X and its performance capabilities.
“In addition, the series will help us maintain the high skill level of our team as we look ahead to continued J-2X testing and testing of the RS-25 engines that will be used to power the SLS first-stage."
The first objective of the testing is to verify and demonstrate the engine's capability. Data from what is known as hot-fire engine tests will be compared to the performance of the first engine.
Engineers also will vary liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen inlet pressures and subject the engine nozzle to higher temperatures than in previous tests to see what effect they have on performance.
NASA already has conducted successful tests on engine number 10001 and on the J-2X powerpack assembly. In total, 34 tests were conducted on the J-2X engine and powerpack, with the J-2X achieving a full flight-duration firing of 500 seconds in the eighth test, earlier than any rocket engine in U.S. history.
The engine is being designed and built by NASA and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to power the upper stage of the 130 metric-ton version of the SLS rocket which will launch NASA's Orion spacecraft and other payloads from the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, providing an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.
The news comes as the agency posted its Strategic Space Technology Investment, a comprehensive strategic plan to prioritise space technologies essential to the pursuit of NASA's mission and achievement of national goals, on its website.
The plan provides guidance for NASA's space technology investments during the next four years, within the context of a 20-year horizon and the plan will be updated approximately every two years, as appropriate, to meet agency and national needs.
"Technology enables discovery and advancement," NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck said. "We look forward to working with our stakeholders to grow our technological base and take the journey to expand scientific understanding, explore the universe, and make a positive impact on the lives of all."