Nasa has successfully tested a booster for the most powerful rocket in the world that could one day launch humans to Mars.
Called Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket successfully fired up on Tuesday for its second qualification ground test at Orbital ATK's test facilities in Promontory, Utah.
This was the last full-scale test for the booster before SLS’s first uncrewed test flight with Nasa’s Orion spacecraft in late 2018 - a key milestone on the agency’s Journey to Mars.
“This final qualification test of the booster system shows real progress in the development of the Space Launch System,” said William Gerstenmaier, a Nasa administrator. “Seeing this test today, and experiencing the sound and feel of approximately 3.6 million pounds of thrust, helps us appreciate the progress we’re making to advance human exploration and open new frontiers for science and technology missions in deep space.”
When ignited, temperatures inside the booster reached nearly 3000°C. The test, which lasted two minutes, provided Nasa with a vast array of useful data that was captured by more than 530 instrumentation channels on the booster.
When completed, two five-segment boosters and four RS-25 main engines will power SLS on deep-space missions.
The solid rocket boosters, built by Nasa contractor Orbital ATK, operate in parallel with SLS’s main engines for the first two minutes of flight. They will provide more than 75 per cent of the thrust needed for the rocket and Orion spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravitational pull.
"Today's test is the pinnacle of years of hard work by the Nasa team, Orbital ATK and commercial partners across the country," said John Honeycutt, SLS Program manager.
“SLS hardware is currently in production for every part of the rocket. Nasa also is making progress every day on Orion and the ground systems to support a launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We're on track to launch SLS on its first flight test with Orion and pave the way for a human presence in deep space."
The initial SLS configuration will have a minimum 70-metric-ton lift capability. The next planned upgrade of SLS will use a powerful exploration upper stage for more ambitious missions, with a 105-metric-ton lift capacity.
Despite the positive results from the test, the head of the European Space Agency (ESA) said last week that humans will not visit the surface of Mars for at least 15 years because the necessary technology has not been developed yet.