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NASA comes to Utah: Orbital ATK rocket booster aces initial test (+video)

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PROMONTORY — The countdown begins, creating even more excitement and anticipation from the hundreds of onlookers stationed strategically around the site of what for many will be the closest thing to a rocket launch they will ever see.

Five, four, three, two, one — ignition.

The roar of the massive engines is deafening; the sight of the flames shooting hundreds of feet behind the exhaust is blinding, even from a mile away; the resulting massive mushroom plume of super-heated smoke shoots a horizontal path before rising into the sky.

The experience, which lasted for just over two minutes early Wednesday morning, brought scientists from Orbital ATK, as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to Promontory for the first qualification ground test of what is being called the most powerful five-segment rocket motor ever developed.

It will be used for initial thrust for NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System, which is designed to launch new missions of space exploration across the solar system.

“The hardest part about getting anywhere in space is just getting off the surface of the earth,” said NASA astronaut Stan Love, a veteran of previous space shuttle missions. “That’s the job of this thing…to lift those huge, heavy weights off the earth and get them up into the atmosphere and eventually off to Mars.”

He said that segments of payload for the Mars mission would be on the order of 100 million tons each, requiring power not previously technologically available. This new engine would help carry the parts of the ship that would be constructed in space by engineer astronauts that would eventually travel to the red planet.

NASA’s Space Launch System is an advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle that scientists said will improve capability for research and human exploration beyond the planet’s orbit. The system will be the most powerful rocket in history, and it is designed to be flexible to meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs. The new booster design builds on the technology from previous rockets, said NASA Booster chief engineer David Wood.

The five-segment boosters propel the rocket off the launch pad and for the first two minutes of flight, he said. Thus far significant progress has been made on the booster and the $2.8 billion project that began in 2006 is on schedule to meet the planned 2016 phase two test and the 2018 flight schedule, said Tim Lawrence, SLS Booster Motor system manager.

The new motor burns 1,385,000 pounds of propellant in two minutes — about five tons per second — generating 20 percent greater average thrust than the space shuttle booster. Each booster produces 3.6 million pounds of maximum thrust — greater than 14 four-engine Boeing 747s at full take-off power. Thrust is the force a jet or rocket engine produces for takeoff.

The booster has a standing height of 177 feet — as tall as a 17-story building. During operation, the temperature of the booster motor chamber gases reach 5,600 degrees Fahrenheit, said Orbital ATK Vice President and General Manager of Propulsion Charlie Precourt, a temperature at which steel boils.

If the heat energy could be converted to electric power, the two boosters firing for two minutes would produce 2.3 million kilowatt hours of power, enough to supply power to over 92,000 homes for a full day, a news release stated.

In the wake of what he described as a “successful” test, Precourt said the gathering data from the motors monitoring systems will be key in determining what improvements, if any, would be needed for the next phase of testing. He said final results on the test will be released in a few months, but preliminary observations are positive.

“We wanted to make sure that all the systems that enable (engine) firing functioned,” he explained. “Ultimate success is to hit all the target (parameters).”

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