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Watch as NASA Tests the Rocket Motor that Could Take Us to Mars

Scientists will test the motor that will power the Space Launch System rocket booster.

by Amy Thompson
Jun 28 2016, 2:11pm

The most powerful rocket in the world fired up for the first of two qualification tests last year. Photo: NASA/Orbital ATK

Smoke and fire will soon fill the Utah desert as NASA tests the most powerful rocket motor ever built.

The motor, built to power NASA's heavy-duty Space Launch System rocket, will roar to life in Promontory, Utah on Tuesday. After a brief delay due to computer issues, the test is set to be broadcast live at 11:05 AM ET.

NASA has a bold mission planned for Mars and if astronauts are going to reach the Red Planet, they will need a massive rocket to get them there. Right now, no such vehicle exists; we have to build one. And that's just what NASA's doing.

The agency, along with partners like Orbital ATK, are working diligently to build the Space Launch System (SLS for short)—the next heavy-lift rocket that will take humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

The livestream programming around the SLS booster test is scheduled to start at 10:30 AM ET on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

SLS is outfitted with twin solid rocket motors and four liquid propellant engines, and will produce an estimated 72 million pounds of lifting power—but before engineers know it can fly, it must be tested. That's what this test is all about: ensuring the booster works properly.

The SLS boosters are made out of refurbished parts from NASA's Solid Rocket Boosters, the strap-on boosters that helped propel space shuttles into orbit for over 30 years. The SLS boosters are slightly longer than their shuttle counterparts, so they can carry the propellant needed to lift the SLS.

During Tuesday's static fire test—meaning the motor is secured horizontally on the stand and fired like it would be during a launch—engineers will be gathering data to better understand how the booster performs.

The motor will burn for two minutes and is expected to generate between 3.2 and 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The booster's flight computer will also simulate how it will fly through the atmosphere by testing out the steering mechanisms.

Like the space shuttle, SLS will launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center and as such will be exposed to a variety of weather conditions. Learning from previous experience with the shuttle boosters, NASA is engineering the SLS boosters to operate optimally between 40 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The booster in Promontory, Utah. Photo: NASA/Orbital ATK

To ensure they function over a wide range of temperatures, the boosters must be tested at each extreme. Last year's test was a hot fire test, meaning it evaluated how the booster operates in high temperatures. Prior to propellant ignition, the booster hardware was heated to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This year's test will feature a booster that has been chilled down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, testing how it will perform in colder temperatures.

Once the booster ignites, it doesn't stay chilled for long. Exhaust temperatures hit about 5,000 degrees, which is hot enough to melt the layer of sand underneath the test stand into glass.

Following Tuesday's test, the next time we will see this booster in action will be in 2018, when it will help propel the 322-foot SLS rocket into space for Exploration Mission-1 where the rocket will launch an unmanned Orion capsule (and various small satellites) on a mission to fly around the Moon.