The coronavirus pandemic has slowed down the test of NASA’s next mega rocket, but the month-long process is resumed and has controlled an important milestone: to push the core step.
The Space Launch System, or SLS, will be the most powerful rocket to date when it is first launched, and its debut flight is currently scheduled for next year. Boeing, the NASA company contracting to lead the rocket’s construction, is now testing the core of the first SLS at the agency’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The qualification procedure is an eight-step process called the “green run” test and started in January.
“It’s very rewarding,” Mark Nappi, Boe̵
The green driving tests will culminate with a heat test, during which the rocket will be tied down but otherwise withstand each step as if a launch had taken place. At present, the Boeing crew expects the heat test to take place in October, Nappi said.
The process has been significantly slowed down by the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the country this year. The team just finished one test before the pandemic came the region seriously in March and the bureau management stopped the work on site in Stennis.
The center slowly opened in mid-May, and the team with green runs completed its second test at the core stage in late June. That test started the core step to ensure that the software and other electrical interfaces involved in the rocket and test stand are working properly.
After that, test crews will verify that they can keep control of the rocket during later tests even if critical communications systems fail – a procedure currently scheduled to take place on Monday (July 6), Nappi said. “It’s an important precursor to getting into the hot fire, knowing that we have redundant roads to be able to turn off the vehicle,” John Cipoletti, Nappi’s deputy for green testing, told Space.com.
The next two tests will check the valves, hydraulics and the like to ensure that the vehicle is ready for more active tests. Then green-run team will take a step back from the rocket and instead run a drill on themselves and go through the motions of the final tests.
The last two tests are a “wet dress test” which sees the rocket step loaded with fuel and the complete heat test to ensure that the vehicle is really ready for takeoff. Successful wet dress and hot-fire tests are crucial for engineers to feel confident that the vehicle is safe.
It is an intensive procedure, but not one that all future SLS core steps will have to endure. The equipment undergoing the tests will be inspected after a successful hot fire, renovated if necessary and then sent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where even more tests await the core stage. But eventually, if all goes well, the SLS core will fly next year and visit the moon, in NASA’s first non-commissioned mission Artemis Program designed to land people on the moon in 2024.
“It’s really a huge, a huge rocket and very impressive in its ability and size,” Cipoletti said. “Being part of creating something that will bring people to Mars in the future is just a wonderful experience.”
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