With its first mission completed, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) mega-rocket looks set to take its next big step: launching astronauts.
The debut flight of the SLS on November 16 marked the start of NASA’s 25-day Artemis 1 mission, which sent an uncrewed Orion capsule to and from lunar orbit. It also made the SLS the most powerful rocket ever successfully launched, a title it won from NASA’s legendary Saturn V rocket.
The initial performance evaluation of the SLS Artemis 1, which NASA released on Nov. 30, gave the rocket high marks, finding it performs as expected in all areas. Mission team members have now had more time to process the numbers, and feedback continues to be enthusiastic, suggesting that no big changes will be needed before the first crewed SLS launch.
“Based on an evaluation conducted shortly after launch, preliminary post-flight data indicates that all SLS systems were operating exceptionally and that the designs are ready to support crewed flight on Artemis 2,” NASA officials wrote in a Jan. 1 update. 27 (will open in a new tab). “The post-flight analysis team will continue to analyze the data and produce a final report.”
Artemis 2 will send NASA astronauts on an approximately 10-day mission around the Moon in 2024 if all goes according to plan.
Pictured: Amazing views of the debut of NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar rocket
Members of the SLS team analyzed a wealth of data to arrive at their latest conclusions, which, as the above statement makes clear, are not the final word on the missile’s performance and prospects.
For example, cameras on the ground, on the rocket and in the air collected about 31 terabytes of images of launch data, NASA officials said, more than 1.5 times the information provided in printed material in the US Library of Congress.
“Multiple views of the Artemis 1 rocket, including the Solid Booster Branch and Intermediate Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), provided image data that helped us evaluate how the SLS performed from liftoff to lift and separation events,” Beth St. Peter. , head of SLS image integration, said in January. 27 update.
ICPS, the top stage of the SLS, is powered by a single RL-10 engine. The giant rocket’s main stage is powered by four RS-25 engines left over from the space shuttle era. Two solid rocket boosters were attached to the main stage of the Artemis 1 mission, helping the SLS generate a whopping 8.8 million pounds of thrust at launch.
All of this equipment worked very well on Nov. 16, NASA officials said in the latest update. For example, RS-25 thrust levels were within 0.5% of expected values, as was the ratio of fuel (liquid hydrogen) to oxidizer (liquid oxygen) in the engines.
In addition, the SLS main stage placed ICPS and Orion into an initial orbit that lifted the duo up to 972.1 miles (1,564.4 km) from Earth and up to 16 miles (25.7 km) away.
“The insert was only 2.9 miles [4.7 km] dodges a perfect bull’s-eye target for 975 miles [1,569.1 km] 16 miles and well within acceptable parameters,” NASA officials wrote in an update.
Artemis 1 will be just the start for the SLS and Orion if all goes according to plan. NASA is counting on hardware to help establish a permanent human presence on and around the Moon by the end of the 2020s, a key goal of the agency’s Artemis program.
Artemis will rely on other elements as well. For example, the giant SpaceX Starship will be the program’s first manned lunar lander, and the Artemis architecture also includes a small lunar-orbiting space station called the Gateway.
If all goes well with Artemis 2, Artemis 3 will send astronauts to the south pole of the moon around 2025.
Mike Wall is the author of Out There (will open in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrations by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or facebook (will open in a new tab).