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SLS Testing Heats Up With Rocket Base Burns

Jan 30, 2015 08:26 PM EST

Buffalo is a pretty cold place this time of year, but that's not the case for the city's facilities of CUBRC Inc, where engineers are testing the heat resistant materials that will make up the base of NASA's new flagship rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS).

The experts from NASA and CUBRC have been firing versions of the four core stage engines of the SLS and two rocket boosters to ensure that they can withstand the heat of their own power.

After all, NASA loves to boast that the SLS is going to be the most powerful rocket ever created. Designed with an unprecedented lift capacity of 130 metric tons, the rocket will make manned missions even past Mars possible. The next most powerful rocket, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy (also in the developmental stage), can only lift a third of that weight.

However, NASA also knows - to quote Peter Parker's good ol' Uncle Ben - that "with great power comes great responsibility."

To ensure that the force of the rocket's boosters don't destroy the craft before it can even ascend, NASA has been running tests of its durability for months, testing everything from acoustic dampening to flawless booster separations.

Now they are ensuring that the booster and engines don't harm themselves when firing. Each test fire only last 50 to 150 milliseconds, but they are fired again and again and again to ensure that the structure can take the stress.

"There's a lot of complex work that goes in to such a short-duration test," Manish Mehta, lead engineer for the SLS Base Heating Test Program, explained in a statement. "The timing of the propulsion systems and shock tunnel have to be precise."

He added that there is no data that the team can fall back on to better prepare the rocket base, because nothing like it has ever flown before.

Still, it should be noted that the engineers aren't foolish enough to use actual SLS rocket engines for these tests. After all, the entire rocket development plan, including construction of the final product, is already costing a whopping $7 billion (USD).

Instead, engineers run these tests with mini-models that are two percent to scale, or 6.5 feet tall.

"What's great about the design of these models is we can run them dozens, even hundreds, of times and reuse most all of the hardware every single time," added Aaron Dufrene, the technical lead at CUBRC.

Still, those hundreds of tests add up, contributing to one more step on our way to the full-sized rocket's first flight in November 2018.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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