Is SLS NASA's most powerful rocket? Next-gen vehicle for manned Moon mission is taller than Statue of Liberty

Is SLS NASA's most powerful rocket? Next-gen vehicle for manned Moon mission is taller than Statue of Liberty

NASA is planning to fire up Space Launch System (SLS), the deep space rocket that will power the agency’s next-generation human Moon missions, in January. At 322 feet, the launch vehicle, which NASA describes as “the most powerful rocket we’ve ever built", is taller than the Statue of Liberty. 

Following a test readiness review, NASA is now targeting January 16 for the final test in the Green Run testing series for the core stage of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will launch the agency’s Artemis I mission. The core stage includes the liquid hydrogen tank and liquid oxygen tank, four RS-25 engines, and the computers, electronics and avionics that serve as the ‘brains' of the rocket. 

“The Green Run test series is a comprehensive assessment of the rocket’s core stage prior to SLS launching Artemis missions to the Moon. The hot fire is the culmination of the Green Run test series, an eight-part test campaign that gradually brings the core stage of the Space Launch System to life for the first time,” explains the agency. 


Eight rocket motor segments for the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System are lined up in preparation for stacking at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida (NASA)

With the Artemis program, NASA will land the first woman and the next man on the Moon. NASA is working toward launching Artemis I in 2021, an uncrewed flight. It is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions to test the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft as an integrated system ahead of crewed flights to the Moon. The Artemis II mission will send astronauts on a flight to orbit the Moon. These missions pave the way for landing astronauts on the Moon in 2024, during the Artemis III mission.


Deep space missions

Designed for deep space missions, the Space Launch System is a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle that provides the foundation for human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.

According to NASA, with its “unprecedented power and capabilities", SLS is the “only rocket that can send Orion spacecraft, astronauts, and cargo to the Moon on a single mission". “The SLS team is producing NASA’s first deep space rocket built for human space travel since the Saturn V,” say experts.


The SLS rocket soars to space in this artist concept depicting the Block 1 crew vehicle configuration launching to space (NASA/MSFC)

It will send Orion or other cargo to the Moon, which is nearly 1,000 times farther than where the space station resides in low-Earth orbit. The rocket will provide the power to help Orion reach a speed of 24,500 miles per hour, the speed needed to send it to the Moon. Weighing 5.75M lbs, SLS will produce 8.8M lbs of maximum thrust, which is 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rocket.

“Offering more payload mass, volume capability, and energy, SLS is designed to be flexible and evolvable and will open new possibilities for payloads, including robotic scientific missions to places like the Moon, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter,” say scientists.


What is the latest test?

NASA conducted the seventh test of the SLS core stage Green Run test series – the wet dress rehearsal – on December 20 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St Louis, Mississippi.

Fully loading the propellant and detecting no leaks is a major milestone for the Green Run test series. A total of 114 tanker trucks delivered propellant to six propellant barges next to the B-2 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St Louis, Mississippi (NASA)

“During our wet dress rehearsal Green Run test, the core stage, the stage controller, and the Green Run software all performed flawlessly, and there were no leaks when the tanks were fully loaded and replenished for approximately two hours. Data from all the tests to date have given us the confidence to proceed with the hot fire,” notes Julie Bassler, SLS Stages manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.


This image shows liquid oxygen as it naturally boils off and is vented from the four RS-25 engines that will be fired during the final core stage test (NASA)

During the upcoming hot fire test, all four engines will fire to simulate the core stage’s performance just as they will be during the Artemis 1 launch. Engineers will power up all the core stage systems, load more than 700,000 gallons of cryogenic, or supercold, propellant into the tanks and fire the engines at the same time.

After the firing test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, the stage will be assembled with the other parts of the rocket and the Orion spacecraft, in preparation for the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion on Artemis I.

“The next few days are critical in preparing the Artemis I rocket stage, the B-2 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, and the test team for the finale of the Green Run test series. The upcoming Green Run hot fire test is the culmination of a lot of hard work by this team as we approach a key milestone event for NASA’s Artemis missions,” emphasizes Barry Robinson, project manager for SLS core stage Green Run testing at Stennis.


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