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.

http://youtu.be/zJXQQv9UZNg[/embedyt]
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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#YearInSpace: Mars, Miles, Months, Mass and Momentum

During his yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station, Scott Kelly traveled over 143 million miles in orbit around Earth.

On average, Mars is 140 million miles away from our planet.

Coincidence? Well, basically.

Scott Kelly with plant-growth experiment
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly took this selfie with the second crop of red romaine lettuce in August 2015. Research into things like replenishable food sources will help prepare the way for Mars. (And the red lettuce even kind of matches the Red Planet!)

There’s nothing average about a trip to Mars; so of course you don’t travel an “average distance” to get there. Launches for robotic missions – the satellites and rovers studying Mars today – are timed around when Earth and Mars are about a third of that distance, which happens every 26 months.

While the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, straight lines are hard to do in interplanetary travel. Instead, Mars missions use momentum from Earth to arc outward from one planet to the other. The Opportunity rover launched when Earth and Mars were the closest they’d been in 60,000 years, and the rover still had to travel 283 million miles to reach the Red Planet.

On the International Space Station, Scott Kelly was traveling at more than 17,000 miles per hour, an ideal speed for orbital research that keeps the station steadily circling Earth every 90 minutes. To break free of orbit and go farther to deep space, spacecraft have to travel at higher speeds. Opportunity, for example, traveled at an average of 60,000 miles per hour on the way to Mars, covering twice the distance Kelly traveled on the station in just over half the time.

Graphic showing Opportunity’s trajectory from Earth to Mars
Although Earth and Mars were relatively close together when Opportunity launched, the rover’s trip out was twice the average distance between the two planets.

The fastest any human being has ever traveled was the crew of Apollo 10, who hit a top speed of almost 25,000 miles per hour returning to Earth in 1969. For astronauts to reach Mars, we need to be able to propel them not only faster than the space station travels, but faster than we’ve ever gone before.

But the real lesson of Kelly’s year in space isn’t the miles, it’s the months. The human body changes in the absence of the effects of gravity. The time Kelly spent in space will reveal a wealth of new data about these changes, ranging from things like how fluid shifts in microgravity affected his vision to the behavioral health impacts of his long duration in the void of space. This information reveals more about what will happen to astronauts traveling to Mars and back, but it also gives us insight into how to equip them for that trip, which will be approximately 30 months in duration round-trip. What sort of equipment will they need to keep them healthy? What accommodations will they require to stay mentally acute? What sort of vehicle do we need to build and equip to send them on their journey?

Months and millions of miles. Momentum and mass. These are some of the most basic challenges of Mars. We will need to build a good ship for our explorers. And we will need the means to lift it from Earth and send it on its way fast enough to reach Mars.

An engine section weld confidence article for the SLS Core Stage is taken off the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans
An engine section weld confidence article for the SLS Core Stage is taken off the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

While Scott Kelly has been living in space helping us to learn more about the challenges, we’ve been working on the rocket that will be a foundational part of addressing them. Scott Kelly left Earth last year half a month after the Space Launch System (SLS) Program conducted a first qualification test of one of its solid rocket boosters. Since then, we have conducted tests of the core stage engines. We’ve started welding together fuel tanks for the core stage. We’ve begun assembling the upper stage for the first flight. We’ve been building new test stands, and upgraded a barge to transport rocket hardware. The Orion program has completed the pressure vessel for a spacecraft that will travel around the moon and back. Kennedy Space Center has been upgrading the facilities that will launch SLS and Orion in less than three years.

And that’s just a part of the work that NASA’s done while Kelly was aboard the space station. Our robotic vanguard at Mars discovered evidence of flowing liquid water, and we’ve been testing new technologies to prepare us for the journey.

Down here and up there, it’s been a busy year, and one that has, in so many ways, brought us a year closer to Mars. The #YearInSpace months and millions of miles may be done, but many more Mars milestones are yet to come!


Next Time: Next Small Steps Episode 3

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A Model Employee

This week, I’d like to introduce guest blogger Jared Austin, a fellow writer on the SLS Strategic Communications team, for a peek into a part of the SLS team that is rarely seen, but creates some of our most-seen tools. — David

Parts of SLS models during assembly
Ever wonder what the sides of the new SLS booster design look like? Now you know!

Few people know Barry Howell and what he’s done for the space program for decades. Neither astronaut nor engineer, through his work as a master model maker Barry has helped NASA visualize spacecraft before they existed.

For more than 40 years, Barry’s “office” has been a space model workshop filled with the past, present and futures of NASA. Barry has created models of many of NASA’s greatest endeavors – from the mighty Saturn 1B and Saturn V, to the iconic Space Shuttle, to early concepts of the International Space Station, to the Hubble Space Telescope, and many other vehicles. Those models aren’t the mass produced, off-the-shelf toys that little Timmy or Sarah receives for their eighth birthdays. Barry’s models are works of both artistic and technical mastery that are painstakingly crafted to scale in a variety of sizes from models that will fit on your desk to a giant that is over 12 feet tall.

Barry Howell with a freshly updated 1-to-50 scale model of SLS
Barry Howell with a freshly updated 1-to-50 scale model of SLS.

You don’t last forty years at a job unless you’re extremely passionate about what you do. Barry’s craft is a rare calling – there are only a small handful of modellers at Marshall Space Flight Center, and only a few NASA centers have model shops. Model makers who get a job like this tend to keep it for a long time, so turnover is low and opportunities are infrequent. Barry came to the job from a background in machining, which he started working while in high school. But when there is an opening in the model shop, there really is only one job qualification – be the best at what you do. There’s no particular education or experience requirement, unmatched skill is the determining factor.

Over the course of his career, Barry’s work has helped solve the agency’s most challenging problems, letting engineers visualize the hardware they are designing and building, and to prove concepts such as the shade on Skylab. After Skylab’s launch, NASA had only 10 days to design and build a sunshade for the space station. Barry helped build a model to demonstrate that the umbrella-like shade that Marshall engineers were designing would properly shield Skylab from the sun’s heat. And his work is rather unique within NASA.

Now Barry is taking his decades of experience in modeling all types of NASA systems and using it to produce models of America’s next great rocket, the Space Launch System.

A row of Saturn-era models in the model shop archive
In decades past, Barry created his models directly from vehicle engineering blueprints.

During his tenure in the model shop, Barry has seen changes in technology and process, along with classic methods that have stood the test of time. In the old days of Saturn and early Shuttle, each and every model would be carefully machined according to actual blueprints that allowed Barry to ensure they were precise representations of the real rockets. Working with aluminum or plexiglass blocks, Barry would carefully drill into blocks with a mill or strip away pieces with a lathe, using nothing more than his focused eye, steady hands, and well-honed judgment to carve the individual parts of the rocket from those blocks.

Today, for SLS, model production is a combination of old and new techniques. There’s no longer a need to individually handcraft each model that’s produced; resin casting allows for mass production of models, allowing the model shop to churn out the models at a faster rate and lower cost. But in order to produce the mold for that casting, the old ways are still best. To this day, Barry produces his initial master for each model line with the meticulous same mill and lathe machining process that he used during Saturn.

Close-up of parts for SLS models
In order to capture the fine detail of an official Marshall model, Barry machines the prototype for each model series the shop produces.

Recently, though, even more modern techniques have entered the model shop in the form of 3D printing, creating small astronaut figures, handheld models of the rocket, or small versions of the SLS engines. It’s a new area that the modelers have just begun to explore and holds many possibilities for improving the way they make SLS models going forward.

“I truly love every part of the model-making process, as well as the variety of different models that I’ve gotten the chance to make at NASA,” Barry said. “And the young guys I get to work with, they come up with a lot of great ideas on how to make things even better.

Barry has also been very gracious in passing on his knowledge to others. Modelers who create their own models at home will often request Barry’s inputs to help them make custom-made parts that look more realistic.

Now, as Barry rides off into the sunset of retirement in a couple of months, he’ll be leaving behind a legacy of models showing NASA’s greatest technological achievements. Barry has helped tell the exploration story and by capturing NASA history in 3D for decades.

Close-up of parts for SLS models
In addition to providing a way to share the vehicles NASA is building, Barry’s models have allowed engineers to visualize concepts that have been proposed.

Next Time: A Model Worker

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