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NASA Test of Mega Moon Rocket Engines Cut Short Unexpectedly

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By Reuters | Updated: 18 January 2021

NASA’s deep space exploration rocket built by Boeing briefly ignited all four engines of its behemoth core stage for the first time on Saturday, cutting short a crucial test to advance a years-delayed US government programme to return humans to the moon in the next few years.

Mounted in a test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the Space Launch System’s (SLS) 212-foot tall core stage roared to life at 4:27pm local time (3:57am IST) for just over a minute — well short of the roughly four minutes engineers needed to stay on track for the rocket’s first launch in November this year.

“Today was a good day,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference after the test, adding “we got lots of data that we’re going to be able to sort through” to determine if a do-over is needed and whether a November 2021 debut launch date is still possible.

The engine test, the last leg of NASA’s nearly year-long “Green Run” test campaign, was a vital step for the space agency and its top SLS contractor Boeing before a debut unmanned launch later this year under NASA’s Artemis programme, the Trump administration’s push to return US astronauts to the moon by 2024.

It was unclear whether Boeing and NASA would have to repeat the test, a prospect that could push the debut launch into 2022. NASA’s SLS program manager John Honeycutt, cautioning the data review from the test is ongoing, told reporters the turnaround time for another hot fire test could be roughly one month.

To simulate internal conditions of a real liftoff, the rocket’s four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines ignited for roughly one minute and 15 seconds, generating 1.6 million pounds of thrust and consuming 700,000 gallons of propellants on NASA’s largest test stand, a massive facility towering 35 stories tall.

The expendable super heavy-lift SLS is three years behind schedule and nearly $3 billion (roughly Rs. 22,000 crores) over budget. Critics have long argued for NASA to retire the rocket’s shuttle-era core technologies, which have launch costs of $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,300 crores) or more per mission, in favor of newer commercial alternatives that promise lower costs.

By comparison, it costs as little as $90 million to fly the massive but less powerful Falcon Heavy rocket designed and manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and some $350 million (roughly Rs. 2,600 crores) per launch for United Launch Alliance’s legacy Delta IV Heavy.

While newer, more reusable rockets from both companies – SpaceX’s Starship and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan – promise heavier lift capacity than the Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy potentially at lower cost, SLS backers argue it would take two or more launches on those rockets to launch what the SLS could carry in a single mission.

Reuters reported in October that President-elect Joe Biden’s space advisers aim to delay Trump’s 2024 goal, casting fresh doubts on the long-term fate of SLS just as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin scramble to bring rival new heavy-lift capacity to market.

NASA and Boeing engineers have stayed on a ten-month schedule for the Green Run “despite having significant adversity this year,” Boeing’s SLS manager John Shannon told reporters this week, citing five tropical storms and a hurricane that hit Stennis, as well as a three-month closure after some engineers tested positive for the coronavirus in March.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Virgin Galactic’s July 11 Spaceflight Deviation Being Investigated by US Federal Aviation Administration

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By Reuters | Updated: 2 September 2021 

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Wednesday it is investigating a deviation in the descent of the flight of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane that carried British billionaire Richard Branson to the edge of space on July 11.

The New Yorker magazine earlier reported that the regulator was investigating an off-course descent. An FAA spokesman told Reuters the vehicle “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America. The FAA investigation is ongoing.”

Virgin Galactic acknowledged in a statement to Reuters that “the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan” but added it “did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace.”

The company said “the flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace … “for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) before re-entering restricted airspace.”

It added that “at no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public.” The company said it is “working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights.”

Virgin Galactic said that “when the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters.”

The New Yorker reported that during the flight a red light flashed on the ship’s console, indicating an “entry glide-cone warning.” Virgin Galactic said that “at no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”

Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic employees who took part in the flight, soaring 1 more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert, in July touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism and said the company he founded in 2004 was poised to begin commercial operations next year.

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX Said to Violate Its Launch License in Explosive Starship Test: Report

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By Reuters | Updated: 30 January 2021

SpaceX’s first high-altitude test flight of its Starship rocket, which exploded last month while attempting to land after an otherwise successful test launch, violated the terms of its Federal Aviation Administration test license, the Verge reported on Friday, citing sources.

An investigation was opened that week focusing on the explosive landing and on SpaceX’s refusal to stick to the terms of what the US FAA authorised, the Verge said.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Starship rocket destroyed in the accident was a 16-storey-tall prototype for the heavy-lift launch vehicle being developed by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private space company to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars.

The self-guided rocket blew up as it touched down on a landing pad following a controlled descent. The test flight had been intended to reach an altitude of 41,000 feet, propelled by three of SpaceX’s newly developed Raptor engines for the first time.

But the company left unclear whether the rocket had flown that high.

The US FAA said it would evaluate additional information provided by SpaceX as part of its application to modify its launch license.

“We will approve the modification only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements,” it said in a statement.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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