All Roads Lead to the Pad

An RS-25 engine is delivered by flatbed truck to a test stand at Stennis Space Center.
A large truck can transport a rocket component the size of one engine. But how do you transport a piece as tall as, say, the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

NASA is preparing for the first of many flights of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. Every day we’re making progress toward their first integrated test flight. Today, that work is taking place at numerous sites around the country, but the work of that nationwide team is firmly focused on one place – the launch pad.

Hundreds of companies across every state have been a part of SLS and the Orion crew spacecraft, many of them small businesses providing specialized components or services. That work comes together at NASA and prime contractor facilities where the “big pieces” are assembled before it all comes together on the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A crane lifts the ICPS test article out of a shipping container.
A test article of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage was delivered to Marshall Space Flight Center from United Launch Alliance in June.

1) Second Stage, From Alabama to Florida by Barge

Some of the pieces have a relatively direct route to the launch pad. At Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the SLS program is managed, for example, the flight unit for the Orion Stage Adapter (OSA) that will connect the SLS second stage to the crew spacecraft is being welded, and welding will begin next month on the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter (LVSA) that will connect the core and second stages. When completed, the LVSA will travel by barge to the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, where final stacking of SLS and Orion will take place. The smaller OSA has the option of barge or truck, and after arriving in Florida, will make a stop at a facility where 13 CubeSats will be installed before continuing on to the VAB.

Half an hour away, the second stage of the rocket, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), is being completed at the United Launch Alliance facility in Decatur, Alabama. The process for the ICPS will be one step longer – after being barged from Decatur to Florida, the stage will be prepared for flight at a payload processing facility before being moved to the VAB for stacking.

Booster segments being delivered by train to Kennedy Space Center during the space shuttle era
Booster segments being delivered by train to Kennedy Space Center during the space shuttle era.

2) Boosters, From Utah to Florida by Train

Propellant is already being cast into booster segments for the first flight of SLS. The boosters will be transported by train from an Orbital ATK facility in Utah to Florida. Since the 17-story-tall boosters are far too long to be transported in one piece, the boosters will be transported in segments. They’ll arrive at a processing facility at Kennedy before being moved to the VAB where they’ll be stacked vertically and joined by the rest of the rocket.

Cutaway view of the core stage inside the Pegasus barge
NASA’s large Pegasus barge will be able to transport the SLS core stage, which will be more than 200 feet long.

3) Engines and Core Stage, From Mississippi to Louisiana to Mississippi to Florida By Barge

This one’s a little more complicated. RS-25 core stage engines are currently in inventory at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where engine testing is taking place. The core stage hardware for the first launch of SLS is currently being welded at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The engines for the first flight will be transported from Stennis to Michoud, and integrated into the first core stage when it’s completed. The core stage with engines will then be transported back to Stennis, where the 212-foot-tall stage-and-engine assembly will be placed into a test stand and all four engines will be fired together in the largest liquid-engine ground test since Apollo. After the test, plans call for the stage to be shipped to Kennedy by barge, where it will be brought to the VAB for assembly with the rest of the rocket.

Artist concept of SLS and mobile launcher on the crawler transporter.
The crawler-transporter is capable of transporting 18 million pounds from the VAB to the launch complex.

4) Rocket, From VAB to Launch Pad via Crawler

Once all of the elements have arrived at the VAB, they’ll be stacked vertically and prepared for launch. The large crawler transporter will bring the mobile launcher with tower to the rocket, and will then carry rocket and launcher together to the launch pad. Which leaves only one last step:

5) Orion, From Launch Pad to Deep Space, via Rocket

NASA is on track for the first mission to launch no later than November 2018 from Florida. The first test flight of SLS and Orion will be incredible, and it will pave the way for our second exploration mission – our first with crew aboard the spacecraft. As these missions continue to come together, we’re closer to sending astronauts to Red Planet than at other point in our history. All the work we’re doing together today will continue to enable that journey in the future.

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Happy (Earth-) Independence Day!

Artist concept of an American flag in front of an SLS launch
Work is progressing rapidly in preparation so this artists concept can become a reality.

On Monday, the United States celebrated the Fourth of July. Fireworks and backyard grills were ignited across the country.

A couple hundred miles above us, the International Space Station orbited Earth with two spacecraft attached to it.

What do these two things have in common? A quest for independence.

The Fourth of July, of course, is the United States’ Independence Day, celebrating the anniversary of the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, announcing that the former colonies were becoming a sovereign nation.

The International Space Station is an early, but prominent step in NASA’s effort to achieve “Earth independence” in human deep-space exploration, a key part of our Journey to Mars. On the station, we are learning how to live off the Earth by conducting investigations to learn how the human body adapts to space and testing new technologies needed for longer missions. However, the two spacecraft docked to the space station demonstrate that our human spaceflight operations today are “Earth dependent.” While astronauts float freely in the microgravity aboard the station, they remain tethered to our planet by a supply chain of provisions needed to survive. Deliveries of food, science experiments, spare parts and gifts from home arrive and depart by spacecraft on a regularly scheduled basis. Earlier this year, the number of docked spacecraft reached six: American Dragon and Cygnus cargo ships, and Russian Progress cargo ships and Soyuz crew vehicles. Should something go wrong, the return to Earth is only a short distance away.

A Dragon capsule is being berthed to the International Space Station
American Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft can be seen here at the International Space Station, joining Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles.

In order to travel to Mars, astronauts will have to survive without that tether. When they depart Earth, they will sail into the void of space without the comfort of frequent visits from resupply ships. They will have no quick return; should something break or go wrong, Earth is potentially more than a year away. These pioneers will rely on themselves and what they have with them, or what has been sent ahead. They will be the first to be independent of our home planet, with both the freedom and responsibility that carries with it.

Significant challenges await us as we move from Earth dependence into Earth independence, learning to operate in space in a way we never have before. To accomplish this, we will carry out “proving ground” missions – missions where we will, innovate, test, and validate new systems and capabilities that will help us learn to live longer and farther away from home. The first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion crew vehicle will mark our entry into this proving ground era, relying on new systems farther from Earth than any human spaceflight mission has ever ventured. SLS and Orion will allow us to launch habitats and other equipment that will support the first astronauts to not only visit, but to live in deep space around and beyond our moon.

A spacecraft approaches Mars and its moons
Astronauts in deep space will need to be able to survive without frequent resupply missions from Earth or being able to return quickly to Earth.

When we have demonstrated the ability to live and thrive in deep space, the time will come for the first mission to leave the neighborhood of the Earth and moon and extend human existence into the solar system, a mission that will not only be a major step toward human landings on Mars but will be our declaration of Earth-independence.

In that moment, the word “Independence” will designate the time when humankind became an interplanetary species.

Get the grills and fireworks ready, because that will be an occasion to celebrate.

Next Time: A Real-World Space Lesson


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SLS Avionics: The Brain Without a Body

By Martin Burkey

If you compared NASA’s powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to a human body, the avionics and software would be the nervous system and brain that monitor the body’s condition and makes and sends decisions. Just a few of the hundreds of operations that they make include: liquid propellant flow, engine throttling, engine and booster exhaust nozzle steering, trajectory updates, receiving and sending data to the crew and ground control, and responding to off-nominal issues such as wind gusts or an engine failure.

The avionics are required to work in environments of temperature, pressure, sound, etc. that no human body – and actually few machines – could tolerate. So everything from the boxes, to the boards, to the individual processors are “ruggedized” and tested at every step in development to survive launch.

Ultimately the avionics boxes and software have to work perfectly. But how can you be sure without putting it on the world’s largest rocket and seeing how it works? That’s the focus of the Integrated Avionics Test Facility – or IATF – at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where the computer, routers, processors, power, and other black boxes and software collectively known as “avionics” are being tested in preparation for the planned 2018 first flight of SLS.

Possibly the coolest thing about the test facility is that it can create an artificial vehicle operating in an artificial world and virtually “fly” SLS hundreds of times – from pre-launch activation and checkout to liftoff to core stage separation at about 17,500 miles per hour and 100 miles in space – to test the entire avionics package.

Expanded view of SLS showing various avionics locations.
Location of avionics aboard SLS Block 1.

Avionics can be found all over SLS: in the booster aft skirt and forward skirt, the core stage engine controllers mounted on the engines themselves, in the core stage engine section, intertank, and forward skirt, in the launch vehicle stage adapter, and in the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage. Of course, avionics for the Orion crew vehicle are also linked in to the performance of the whole vehicle. So basically top to bottom.

An overhead view of the SLS IATF at Marshall Space Flight Center.
The heart of the Integrated Avionics Test Facility at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The Systems Integration Test Facility-Qualification is shown left background. The System Integration Lab is in the foreground. The SLS booster Hardware In the Loop facility is in the middle background.

Inside the test facility, the vehicle avionics boxes are mounted on a semi-circular, 18-foot-tall frame in the same relative position they will be inside SLS – right down to the length of the connecting cables. Outside the frame, several large towers house the equipment for simulating the SLS “world” and running test after test.

The virtual world of SLS is created by a pair of software tools, ARTEMIS and MAESTRO. They stand for A Real-Time Environment for Modeling, Integration and Simulation (ARTEMIS) and Managed Automation Environment for Simulation, Test, and Real-Time Operations (MAESTRO). (How do engineers come up with this stuff?) ARTEMIS is a suite of computer models, simulations and hardware interfaces that simulates the SLS and its virtual “world.” For instance, it simulates the Earth’s rotation, gravity, propellant tank sloshing, vehicle bending in flight, engine and booster pressure, temperature and thrust, and weather, from hot sunny days to cold stormy nights, and inputs from the Orion crew vehicle and launch facilities. In fact, ARTEMIS has far more lines of software code than SLS itself. MAESTRO serves as the test conductor for the virtual missions. This software configures and controls test operations, sets up the external conditions, monitors the tests, and archives all test data for analysis. That’s where engineers and software writers find out if their code needs fixing or supplementing.

The actual flight avionics for SLS will never be tested in this facility – only their flight-like equivalents. The actual flight avionics will be installed directly into the core stage at the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana and tested there prior to flight. The test team at Marshall can already say that they’ve flown SLS “virtually” thousands of time to help ensure that SLS flies safely on its first real mission in a couple of years.


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We’ve Got (Rocket) Chemistry, Part 1

Written by Beverly Perry

What do water and aluminum have in common?

If you guessed that water and aluminum make SLS fly, give yourself a gold star!

Chemistry is at the heart of making rockets fly. Rocket propulsion follows Newton’s Third Law, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To get a rocket off the launch pad, create a chemical reaction that shoots gas and particles out one end of the rocket and the rocket will go the other way.

What kind of chemical reaction gets hot gases shooting out of the business end of a rocket with enough velocity to unshackle it from Earth’s gravity? Combustion.

Whether it’s your personal vehicle or a behemoth launch vehicle like SLS, the basics are the same. Combustion (burning something) releases energy, which makes things go. Start with fuel (something to burn) and an oxidizer (something to make it burn) and now you’ve got propellant. Give it a spark and energy is released, along with some byproducts.

For SLS to fly, combustion takes place in two primary areas: the main engines (four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25s) and the twin solid rocket boosters (built by Orbital ATK) that provide more than 75 percent of thrust at liftoff. Combustion powers both propulsion systems, but the fuels and oxidizers are different.

RS-25 engine during testing
Steam clouds, the product of the SLS main engines’ hydrogen-oxygen reaction, pour from an RS-25 engine during testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

The RS-25 main engines are called “liquid engines” because the fuel is liquid hydrogen (LH2). Liquid oxygen (LOX) serves as the oxidizer. The boosters, on the other hand, use aluminum as fuel with ammonium perchlorate as the oxidizer, mixed with a binder that creates one homogenous solid propellant.

Making water makes SLS fly

Hydrogen doodleHydrogen, the fuel for the main engines, is the lightest element and normally exists as a gas. Gases – especially lightweight hydrogen – are low-density, which means a little of it takes up a lot of space. To have enough to power a large combustion reaction would require an incredibly large tank to hold it – the opposite of what’s needed for an aerodynamically designed launch vehicle.

To get around this problem, turn the hydrogen gas into a liquid, which is denser than a gas. This means cooling the hydrogen to a temperature of ‑423 degrees Fahrenheit (‑253 degrees Celsius). Seriously cold.

Oxgen doodleAlthough it’s denser than hydrogen, oxygen also needs to be compressed into a liquid to fit in a smaller, lighter tank. To transform oxygen into its liquid state, it is cooled to a temperature of ‑297 degrees Fahrenheit (‑183 degrees Celsius). While that’s balmy compared to LH2, both propellant ingredients need special handling at these temperatures. What’s more, the cryogenic LH2 and LOX evaporate quickly at ambient pressure and temperature, meaning the rocket can’t be loaded with propellant until a few hours before launch.

Once in the tanks and with the launch countdown nearing zero, the LH2 and LOX are pumped into the combustion chamber of each engine. When the propellant is ignited, the hydrogen reacts explosively with oxygen to form: water! Elementary!

2H2 + O2 = 2H2O + Energy

This “green” reaction releases massive amounts of energy along with superheated water (steam). The hydrogen-oxygen reaction generates tremendous heat, causing the water vapor to expand and exit the engine nozzles at speeds of 10,000 miles per hour! All that fast-moving steam creates the thrust that propels the rocket from Earth.

It’s all about impulse

But it’s not just the environmentally friendly water reaction that makes cryogenic LH2 a fantastic rocket fuel. It’s all about impulse – specific impulse. This measure of the efficiency of rocket fuel describes the amount of thrust per amount of fuel burned. The higher the specific impulse, the more “push off the pad” you get per each pound of fuel.

The LH2-LOX propellant has the highest specific impulse of any commonly used rocket fuel, and the incredibly efficient RS-25 engine gets great gas mileage out of an already efficient fuel.

But even though LH2 has the highest specific impulse, because of its low density, carrying enough LH2 to fuel the reaction needed to leave Earth’s surface would require a tank too big, too heavy and with too much insulation protecting the cryogenic propellant to be practical.

To get around that, designers gave SLS a boost.


Next time: How the solid rocket boosters use aluminum – the same stuff you use to cover your leftovers – to provide enough thrust to get SLS off the ground.

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Five “Secrets” of Engine 2059

Earlier this month, another successful test firing of a Space Launch System (SLS) RS-25 engine was conducted at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Engine testing is a vital part of making sure SLS is ready for its first flight. How do the engines handle the higher thrust level they’ll need to produce for an SLS launch? Is the new engine controller computer ready for the task of a dynamic SLS launch? What happens when if you increase the pressure of the propellant flowing into the engine? SLS will produce more thrust at launch than any rocket NASA’s ever flown, and the power and stresses involved put a lot of demands on the engines. Testing gives us confidence that the upgrades we’re making to the engines have prepared them to meet those demands.

If you read about the test – and you are following us on Twitter, right? – you probably heard that the engine being used in this test was the first “flight” engine, both in the sense that it is an engine that has flown before, and is an engine that is already scheduled for flight on SLS. You may not have known that within the SLS program, each of the RS-25 engines for our first four flights is a distinct individual, with its own designation and history. Here are five other things you may not have known about the engine NASA and RS-25 prime contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne tested this month, engine 2059.

Engine 2059 during testing at Stennis Space Center on March 10
Engine 2059 roars to life during testing at Stennis Space Center.

1. Engine 2059 Is a “Hubble Hugger” – In 2009, the space shuttle made its final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, STS-125. Spaceflight fans excited by the mission called themselves “Hubble Huggers,” including STS-125 crew member John Grunsfeld, today the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Along with two other engines, 2059 powered space shuttle Atlantis into orbit for the successful Hubble servicing mission. In addition to its Hubble flight, engine 2059 also made four visits to the International Space Station, including the STS-130 mission that delivered the cupola from which station crew members can observe Earth below them.

Launch of Atlantis on STS-125
The engine farthest to the left in this picture of the launch of the last Hubble servicing mission? That’s 2059. (Click for a larger version.)

2. The Last Shall Be First, and the Second-to-Last Shall Be Second-To-First – The first flight of SLS will include an engine that flew on STS-135, the final flight of the space shuttle, in 2011. So if the first flight of SLS includes an engine that flew on the last flight of shuttle, it only makes sense that on the second flight of SLS, there will be an engine that flew on the second-to-last flight of shuttle, right? Engine 2059 last flew on STS-134, the penultimate shuttle flight, in May 2011, and will next fly on SLS Exploration Mission-2.

View of the test stand during the test of engine 2059 at Stennis Space Center on March 10.
The test of engine 2059 at Stennis Space Center on March 10.

3. Engine 2059 Is Reaching for New Heights – As an engine that flew on a Hubble servicing mission, engine 2059 has already been higher than the average flight of an RS-25. Hubble orbits Earth at an altitude of about 350 miles, more than 100 miles higher than the average orbit of the International Space Station. But on its next flight, 2059 will fly almost three times higher than that – the EM-2 core stage and engines will reach a peak altitude of almost 1,000 miles!

Infographic about engine testing
Click to see larger version.

4. Sometimes the Engine Tests the Test Stand – The test of engine 2059 gave the SLS program valuable information about the engine, but it also provided unique information about the test stand. Because 2059 is a flown engine, we have data about its past testing performance. Prior to the first SLS RS-25 engine test series last year, the A1 test stand at Stennis had gone through modifications. Comparing the data from 2059’s previous testing with the test this month provides calibration data for the test stand.

NASA Social attendees with engine 2059 in the background
Attendees of a NASA Social visiting Stennis Space Center being photobombed by engine 2059.

5. You – Yes, You – Can Meet Awesome SLS Hardware Like Engine 2059 – In 2014, participants in a NASA Social at Stennis Space Center and Michoud Assembly Facility, outside of New Orleans, got to tour the engine facility at Stennis, and had the opportunity to have their picture made with one of the enginesnone other than 2059. NASA Social participants have seen other SLS hardware, toured the booster fabrication facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and watched an RS-25 engine test at Stennis and a solid rocket booster test at Orbital ATK in Utah. Watch for your next opportunity to be part of a NASA Social here.

Watch the test here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njb9Z2jX2fA[/embedyt]

If you do not see the video above, please make sure the URL at the top of the page reads http, not https.


Next Time: We’ve Got Chemistry!

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Making a Lot of Fire in Two “Easy” Steps

On one end of the technology spectrum, you have rocket science, mastering the laws of physics to allow human beings to break the chains of gravity and sail through the void of space.

On the other end, you have the earliest humans, first learning to use the world around them in innovative ways to do things they previously couldn’t.

What do these two extremes have in common? Making fire. Just like the secret to learning to cook food was mastering the creation of flames, creating fire is also the secret to leaving the planet.

We just use a much bigger fire.

Close-up of aft end of SLS during launch
Solid rocket motors and liquid-fuel engines will work together to propel the first SLS into space.

If you’ve watched the first video in our No Small Steps series you’ve learned why going to Mars is a very big challenge, and why meeting that challenge requires a very big rocket. In the second installment we talked about how NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) builds on the foundation of the Saturn V and the space shuttle, and then uses that foundation to create a rocket that will accomplish things neither of them could.

Now, the third No Small Steps video takes a step further by looking at the basics of the monumental energy that makes the rocket go up. If you’ve been following this Rocketology blog and the No Small Steps videos, you’re aware that the initial configuration of SLS uses two different means of powering itself during launch – solid rocket boosters and liquid-fuel engines.

But why? What’s the difference between the two, and what role does each play during launch? Well, we’re glad you asked, because those are exactly the questions we answer in our latest video.

With more SLS engine and booster tests coming in the next few months, this video is a great way to get “fired up” about our next steps toward launch.

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If you do not see the video above, please make sure the URL at the top of the page reads http, not https.


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Think You’re Stressed? Try Being A Rocket

You know how big the SLS vehicle will be. We described the tremendous power and thrust of just one of the RS-25 engines after last year’s test firings. You may have witnessed live as we fired one of the massive five-segment solid rocket boosters last March. Through all that, perhaps you can imagine how incredible it will be at launch when all four engines and both boosters ignite together to lift this 322 feet tall, 5.75 million pound rocket up through the atmosphere and toward deep space. Imagine the thunderous vibration in your chest even as you stand several miles away.

Artist’s concept of an SLS launch
Note: Actually watching an SLS launch from this close is strongly not advised (or permitted). Orion hardware is being tested to withstand sound levels that would turn a person to liquid.

We’ve talked about how it will feel to be there when the rocket launches. Now, let’s talk about how it would feel to BE the rocket, launching.

Envision the power generated at launch as the engines and boosters throttle up to 8.8 million pounds of thrust. The heat is incredible! The vehicle starts to shake. The engine nozzles, as big and solid as they seem, will warp under the pressure of heat when the engines ignite seconds ahead of the boosters. While still on the pad, the boosters are bearing the weight of the entire vehicle even as they fire up for launch – the weight of almost 13 Statues of Liberty resting on an area smaller than an average living room.

Then, you – the rocket – are released to fly, and up you go. More than 5 million pounds of the weight of the rocket pushing down are now counteracted by more than 8 million pounds of thrust pushing from the opposite direction. Remember those 13 Statues of Liberty? Now the bottom of the rocket is feeling the pressure of 29 of them instead!

And now things are heating up on the front end of the rocket as well. Approaching Mach 1, shock waves move over the entire vehicle. Friction from just moving through the air causes the nose of the vehicle to heat. The shock waves coming off the booster nose cones strike the core stage intertank and can raise the temperature to 700 degrees. The foam insulation not only keeps the cryogenic tanks cold, it keeps the heat of ascent from getting into the intertank structure between the hydrogen and oxygen tanks.

Computer model of a shock wave at the front of the SLS vehicle at the time of booster separation during launch.
Computer model of a shock wave at the front of the SLS vehicle at the time of booster separation during launch.

Are you feeling it yet? That’s a lot to handle. These impacts from weight (mass), pressure, temperature and vibration are called “loads.” It’s a key part of the “rocket science” involved in the development of the SLS vehicle.

A load is a pressure acting on an area. Sounds simple, right? There are all kinds of loads acting on SLS, some even before it leaves the launch pad. Tension and compression (pulling and pushing), torque (twisting), thermal (hot and cold), acoustic (vibration), to name a few. There are static (stationary) loads acting on the big pieces of the rocket due to gravity and their own weight. There are loads that have to be considered when hardware is tipped, tilted, rolled, and lifted at the factory. There are “sea loads” that act on the hardware when they ride on the barge up and down the rivers to various test sites and eventually across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Florida coast to Kennedy Space Center for launch. Engineers have to consider every single load, understanding how they will affect the structural integrity of the rocket and how they will couple and act together.

The Pegasus barge that will transport SLS
You’ve probably never thought of “riding on a boat” as rocket science, but SLS has to be designed to handle sea loads as well as space loads.

When SLS is stacked on the mobile launcher at KSC, there are loads acting through the four struts securing the core stage to the boosters and down into the booster aft skirts that have to carry the entire weight of the launch vehicle on the mobile launcher. Then there are roll-out loads when the mobile launcher and crawler take SLS more than 4 miles from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad. There are many more loads as the vehicle is readied for launch.

How do engineers know the rocket’s ready to handle the loads it has to face to send astronauts into deep space? Step One is good design – developing a rocket robust enough to withstand the strains of launch. However this is difficult as the vehicle needs to be as lightweight as possible. Step Two is digital modeling – before you start building, you run many, many simulations in the computer to a level of detail that would make any Kerbal Space Program fan jealous. Step Three is to do the real thing, but smaller – wind-tunnel models and even scale-model rockets with working propulsion systems provide real-life data. And then comes Step Four – build real hardware, and stress it out. Test articles for the core stage and upper stage elements of the vehicle will be placed in test stands beginning this year and subjected to loads that will mimic the launch experience. Engines and boosters are test-fired to make sure they’re ready to go.

Still want to be the rocket? Stay tuned for more on loads as we do everything possible to shake, rattle, and yes, even roll, the pieces of the rocket, ensuring it’s ready to launch in 2018.


Next Time: No Small Steps Episode 3

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One Giant Rocket, Batteries Not Included

This week, guest blogger Jared Austin, a fellow writer on the SLS Strategic Communications team, is back for a look at an example of the innovative technology work taking place in the SLS program. — David

Terry Rolin holds an ultracapacitor
Terry Rolin has a job with real power – researching ultracapacitors for spaceflight purposes. (Get it? “Real power”! Ha!)

Would you like a cellphone, tablet, or laptop that is lighter and more powerful and will recharge for use in a matter of seconds? If your answer is “Yes!” then the Space Launch System Program is working to make your life a little bit better. (If your answer is “no,” are you sure you’re in the right place?)

Rockets and smartphones may not seem like they have much in common, but one thing they do share is a need for reliable power for electronic systems. And that’s where ultracapacitors come in.

Ultracapacitors are small devices, as small as roughly the size of a business card, which means more room and less weight than a traditional battery. On top of that, ultracapacitors charge rapidly.

Close-up of an ultracapacitor power storage unit
Close-up of an ultracapacitor power storage unit

NASA’s new Space Launch System will be NASA’s exploration ride for decades to come, and that presents a unique challenge. While the first version of the rocket will be ready to fly in three years, NASA will continue to evolve it into more powerful configurations through the 2020s, meaning that NASA engineers are working today to make sure the final version of the rocket will still be state-of-the-art when it flies. To accomplish that, engineers are already engaged in the long-lead work of maturing new technologies for spaceflight.

For instance, every NASA system – from small “CubeSats” to rovers, satellites, and even rockets – has an electrical system that requires power. The most common power source is a battery. Despite their widespread use, rechargeable batteries come with a number of drawbacks. They are slow to charge up (hours) and are necessarily bulky in order to meet power requirements. Batteries heat up during use (feel the bottom of your laptop after an hour’s use), and that overheating can wear on the device its powering. On top of that, batteries contain harmful chemicals that are bad for the environment, and suffer from early wear-out, especially in the harsh environments of space where many NASA systems operate.

Meet avionics failure analyst Terry Rolin, who kept seeing battery failures that were creating problems for NASA systems.

“I have learned that failures present opportunities for individuals to learn new ways of doing things, build character, and teach new pathways for problem solving,” Terry said.

Rolin at his workstation
The work that Rolin and is team are doing has the potential to benefit not only SLS but also electronics devices.

In 2012, he learned about ultracapacitors and was sure he had found the future.

The ultracapacitors can be significantly smaller than batteries, allowing more room for payloads, which is especially important to CubeSats where every centimeter matters. Ultracapacitors do not heat up during use, which is good for the system it’s powering. Also, due to their solid-state design (batteries contain a liquid core), the harsh environments of space – radiation, extreme temperatures, and pressures – do not affect them the same way they do batteries.

While ultracapacitors pose substantial promise for spaceflight applications, there was one major issue that had to be resolved before they could be rocket-ready. To build the compact ultracapacitors in a way that would maximize their capacity to store energy, they need to be as thin as possible; an ultracapacitor’s ability to store electrical charges actually decreases as it grows in size. Terry and his team won an innovation fund in the summer of 2012 to develop ultracapacitors that could power NASA systems using 3-D printing techniques and nanotechnology in order to manufacture the smaller ultracapacitors.

For SLS, despite the enormous size of the rocket, there are numerous small avionics computer boxes requiring power systems that fit in a tight space. Ultracapacitors are being evaluated for use down the road, either as the primary power system, or in a hybrid combination with batteries taking advantage of the best of both power sources.

“I was seeing increases in the ability of the capacitors to store energy by several orders of magnitude, and getting charging times of seconds rather than hours,” Terry said. “It was very exciting.”

But Terry’s team had difficulty reproducing their efforts. They found micro- and nano-fractures in their ultracapacitors, so they reached out to industry and academia for help.

Rolin at his workstation
In order to use 3-D printing to create the ultracapacitors, Rolins and his team had to find a way to prevent the devices from being damaged by the heat of printing.

It turned out that the nanoparticles in the commercial electrode ink they were using during the 3-D printing process the devices required a temperature so high that it damaged the ultracapacitors. So, Terry’s team developed a new ink that would sinter, or “print,” at lower temperatures, but still work for commercial manufacturing processes. Because of this work, down the road, commercial companies could release a nanoparticle ink that lets anyone with a 3-D printer to create their own ultracapacitors to power their electronics.

While their full potential is still being researched by Terry and his team in the space systems department at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, ultracapacitors show promise to not only make NASA systems smaller, lighter, more durable, easily rechargeable, and more environmentally friendly, but to potentially bring those same benefits to electronic devices in your home or pocket.

Ultracapacitors are only one of the many technologies the SLS program has been developing, both internally with NASA engineers and in partnership with industry and academia. NASA has a long history of “spin-offs” that have taken space system research to make lives on Earth better, from Hubble software that helps with cancer detection to filtration systems that help provide clean drinking water in remote areas.

A rocket for missions to Mars that makes life better on Earth? That truly is the best of both worlds.

Next Time: Hey, Want A Ride?

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