NASA's moon rocket blasted jumbo clouds.  Don't call her smoke.

NASA’s moon rocket blasted jumbo clouds. Don’t call her smoke.

When NASA’s moon rocket ignited in the dark, it unleashed an avalanche of snow-white clouds around the launch pad.

The plumes billowed out and clung to the air long after the spacecraft was out of sight, like a magician’s smoke bomb hurled against the stage for a vanishing act.

But calling these mysterious clouds “smoke” would be a bit of a misnomer, said Nate Perkins, an engineer at Aerojet Rocketdyne who built the propulsion system mounted on the rocket’s bottom. Most of the plume comes from the four main engines, which emit neither soot nor carbon.

They’re just the result of a chemical process that occurs when liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen heat up, collide, and explode. Remember in elementary school science class, what happens when you combine oxygen with some hydrogen atoms?

“You get steam. It’s just water — water vapor,” Perkins told Mashable. “These are all by-products of the RS-25 engines, and that’s the bulk of what you’re looking at.”

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The Space Launch System, often referred to today as NASA’s Mega Moon rocket, is the most powerful rocket ever built. Its four main engines, the same as those used on the legendary space shuttle, use 700,000 gallons of super-cold propellant. These engines, in combination with two side boosters, could keep eight Boeing 747s in the air.

Liquid hydrogen has been NASA’s fuel of choice for decades because it has the lowest molecular weight available. This is ideal for space travel. The heavier the cargo, the more thrust a spacecraft needs to escape Earth’s gravity. Hydrogen also burns with extreme ferocity.

When NASA filled the rocket with fuel before launch, the liquid oxygen and hydrogen were kept separate in the tank. At the last moment, the two ingredients mixed together, causing a controlled explosion that ejected the spacecraft into the sky.

The Mega Moon Rocket has four powerful RS-25 main engines.
Credit: NASA/Eric Bordelon

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NASA’s Mega Lunar Rocket will launch for the first time on November 16, 2022.
Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The clouds are similar to what people see when an airplane speeds across the sky. Here, the rocket engines eject steam at 13 times the speed of sound — fast enough to travel from New York to LA in 15 minutes — that condenses and floats in the air like fog.

But there are other engines on this rocket. Producing their share of water vapor, the solid rocket boosters emit carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, and nitrogen, among other gases. Tiny particles of aluminum oxide and hydrochloric acid are also in their plumes and can appear like white vapor, Kendra Kastelan, a spokeswoman for Northrop Grumman, said in an email. Much less of the rocket’s huff and puff comes from those side boosters firing for two minutes compared to the eight-minute romp of the four main engines.

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Water splashes on NASA launch pad

A water suppression system on Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad sprays millions of gallons of water.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Clouds also form from the hundreds of thousands of gallons of water evaporating from the water spray system at the launch pad. The tide is designed to suppress the extreme heat generated during ignition and liftoff.

Water prevents flames from spreading, but it serves another important purpose: preventing damage from loud noise. Without this surge, sound waves could burst pipes, crack walls, and even shatter parts of the rocket.

Rocket engine testing at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi

Sometimes water vapor will condense around an engine test site and cause localized rain.
Photo credit: NASA

Depending on the conditions of the atmosphere, all that condensed vapor can create its own weather. Engineers observe this when testing the massive engines. ‘

“You get all this exhaust, the steam comes out,” Perkins said. “You end up getting localized rain and fog in the area.”

And when it pours, they have a name for it: rocket rain.


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