Nasa has started working on the Preliminary Design Review for its new heavyweight launcher, making the first step towards developing a rocket for future mission to Mars.
The Space Launch System (SLS), which is to become the new Nasa’s flagship programme after the retirement of the Space Shuttle two years ago, is a replacement for the Constellation Programme, cancelled in 2011 due to budgetary cuts. It is designed to become the most powerful launching system ever developed that will be capable of carrying human crew far beyond the Earth orbit.
The Preliminary Design Review will assess all aspects of the proposed launch system and will require participation of Nasa representatives, their contractor partners and experts from across the aerospace industry.
"This phase of development allows us to take a critical look at every design element to ensure it is capable of carrying humans to places we have never been before," said Dan Dumbacher, Nasa's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development in Washington. "This is the rocket that will send humans to an asteroid and Mars, so we want to be sure we get its development right."
The review process will take several weeks and results are expected to be announced later this summer. If things go according to plan, the SLS will perform the first unmanned test flight in 2017, followed by an asteroid mission with a human crew aboard as early as 2021.
"The preliminary design review is incredibly important, as it demonstrates the SLS design meets all system requirements within acceptable risk constraints, giving us the green light for proceeding with the detailed design," said Todd May, manager of the SLS Program at Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Centre. "We are on track and meeting all the milestones necessary to fly in 2017."
The SLS is designed to be flexible in terms of its use. It could serve as a back-up resupply and crew transportation vehicle for the International Space Station substituting SpaceX's Dragon and other upcoming private spacecraft if the need arises. At the first place, it should support manned missions to distant corners of the Solar System and beyond.