Nasa has successfully tested a rocket booster of its Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built designed to take mankind to Mars and beyond.
During the test, the 53m-long booster fired for two minutes, the same amount of time needed to lift the giant SLS rocket with the interplanetary Orion capsule atop from the launch pad, and produced some 3.6 million pounds of thrust.
“Booster test for @NASA_SLS complete,” Nasa tweeted at around 3.45pm GMT. “Teams are reviewing the data. This was a step on our #JourneyToMars.”
Crowds of onlookers were taking pictures with their smartphones as a massive plume of smoke rose from between the rocks of the test facility in the Promontory region of the American state of Utah, which is operated by Nasa’s contractor Orbital ATK.
"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."
The Wednesday test was the first of two needed to qualify the booster for flight. Following the second test, which is expected to take place in 2016, the rocket, essentially a beefed-up space shuttle booster, will be shipped to Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for in-flight testing.
"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. "The teams are doing tremendous work to develop what will be a national asset for human exploration and potential science missions."
During the test, engineers collected data from more than 500 instrumentation channels on the booster together with information about the performance of the motor, which recently received new insulation.
Nasa said the Space Launch System design expects five such boosters to operate in conjunction with the main engine for the first two minutes of the flight with the boosters alone providing 75 per cent of the thrust needed to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull.
While today’s test verified the rocket’s performance while pre-heated to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the second, planned for early 2016 will be performed with the rocket cooled down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit – the low end of the propellant temperature.
Together, the two tests will provide a full range of data to assess the booster’s performance.
The first flight test of SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit to test the performance of the integrated system. Eventually, the SLS will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons to enable missions farther to asteroids, Mars and beyond.