For the time being, NASA’s Space Launch System was hurtling into the record books from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center.
The SLS rocket, which used a combination of two solid rocket boosters with a core stage of four repurposed RS-25 engines from the Space Shuttle program, generated 8.8 million pounds of thrust to propel the Orion spacecraft into orbit lift and send it on its way to the moon for the unmanned mission Artemis I.
Its success makes it the most powerful rocket ever launched into space, surpassing the performance of the Saturn V rockets used during the Apollo lunar missions five decades ago, which generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust.
The Soviet Union tried four attempts from 1969 to 1972 to launch a rocket called the N-1, which produced 10.2 million pounds of thrust, but all failed in mid-flight and never made it into space.
That makes SLS the king of space rockets, and their performance was near perfect, said NASA Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin.
“I just want to say that the results were stunning. The rocket has met and/or exceeded expectations,” he said at a recent press conference.
The SLS design resembles the approach of the Space Shuttle, whose launches generated just over 6.4 million pounds of thrust during its run from 1981 to 2011. However, space shuttle launches only had three RS-25 engines, fed with fuel from the massive external fuel tank, while the two solid rocket boosters were not as large as the SLS versions, which were lined up in five segments instead of four are.
Notably, the reusable RS-25s have all flown multiple shuttle missions, including Atlantis, Endeavor, Discovery and even one used on a previous Space Shuttle Columbia flight, before being destroyed on return from orbit in 2003 .
NASA advertises SLS as the only rocket capable of carrying both crew and cargo to their destinations in space. A manned Artemis II flight on an orbital lunar mission is planned for May 2024 at the earliest.
Artemis III, which is expected to return humans, including the first woman, to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972, is scheduled for no earlier than the following year.
Beginning with Artemis IV, a larger version of the SLS using what NASA calls the Exploration Upper Stage, it seeks to carry parts of a small lunar space station called Gateway to lay the foundations for a continued presence on the moon. Beginning with Artemis IX, probably not until the 2030s, a new version of the solid rocket boosters is set to increase the SLS’s power to 9.2 million pounds of thrust at launch.
That future, however, could see Elon Musk’s in-development Starship with Super Heavy Booster for SpaceX not only earning the title of most powerful rocket to make it into orbit, but also seen as an alternative for crew and cargo launch capability.
Powered by 33 of SpaceX’s new Raptor 2 engines, the Super Heavy Booster will generate 17 million pounds of thrust on launch, which is nearly double that of Artemis I launch.
The spacecraft itself has six Raptor 2 engines and will have the capacity to launch more than 220,000 pounds of crew and cargo into low Earth orbit, which is slightly more than the current SLS capacity.
The spacecraft and Super Heavy combination prepares for its first orbital test flight from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Most recently, it conducted a static fire involving 14 of the engines on Nov. 14, with Musk posting on Twitter that the launch attempt could be forthcoming before the end of this year.
The increasing cadence of Raptor’s static fires follows an incident in July that required repairs to the booster when SpaceX ignited all 33, resulting in a fireball on the pad.
Combined, Starship and Super Heavy stand at a height of 395 feet. SpaceX has said it prefers to conduct Starship test flights in Texas, but is also building launch facilities for the next-generation rocket at KSC, where it launches its current stable of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
“SpaceX is moving at the speed of light to conduct launch operations here,” said Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida, the state agency for aerospace economic development. “So we’re very optimistic that it won’t be long.”
But the first launch will be from Texas, with Starship being separated from the Super Heavy Booster, which will land on a SpaceX ship 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Starship then attempts to achieve orbit for at least one trip around Earth and land in the Pacific Ocean. It’s unclear how many test launches will take place from Texas before operations begin in Florida.
“It’s a big vehicle, no question, and I think it’s going to be a sight to behold no matter where it launches from, but I expect Starship’s workhorse function will be performed here,” DiBello said. “That’s our goal anyway. We’re working with SpaceX to try to make that happen.”
NASA officials have a vested interest in Starship reaching operational status quickly, since a version of it will be used for Artemis III. On this flight, astronauts will transfer from Orion to a spacecraft while orbiting the moon, and the spacecraft will take them down to the lunar surface and back again.
Last week, NASA also gave SpaceX the proposed landing for Artemis IV, although future landers from other companies can still compete for Artemis contracts. With a required test flight to the moon ahead of Artemis III, SpaceX now has three lunar missions on the books for NASA.
“Most appreciated, SpaceX will not let NASA down!” Musk wrote on Twitter after the award announcement.
Musk also congratulated NASA after the successful launch of Artemis I.
That launch actually pushed SpaceX’s other big rocket — Falcon Heavy — off the top of the list of most powerful active rockets. To date, SpaceX has only launched Falcon Heavy four times. The youngest performed from KSC on November 1, and that was the first in more than three years.
The first Falcon Heavy flight of 2018 was a spectacle that drew millions of thousands to the Space Coast for a test flight that sent Musk’s Tesla roadster into space orbit.
A Falcon 9 rocket produces 1.7 million pounds of thrust, and a Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9s strapped together to produce more than 5 million pounds of power.
On KSC’s press page, the rumble of Falcon Heavy sets off car alarms, just as it did when NASA launched the shuttles more than a decade ago. Falcon Heavy launches have the added treat of double sonic booms generated when SpaceX lands the two side booster stages at the nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The recent takeoff and landing, which took place while KSC was shrouded in fog, actually created a shockwave that sent clothing flapping while simultaneously bouncing an echo off the massive vehicle assembly building that sounded like someone was firing bottle rockets.
While there was no sonic boom when Artemis I launched, it did provide amplified sensations that dwarfed Falcon Heavy’s power.
The cheering of the crowd began when they saw the smoke and flames from launch pad 39-B a little over three miles away, followed by the increasing roar about 10 seconds into the flight, increasing to about 45 seconds after takeoff increased to a crescendo.
The pressure built in the ear like the muffled sounds of waking from a dream, gathering steam until it became a sizzling series of staccato beats to the senses. It could even be felt in the chest, while the swelling cacophony of the distant burning of 1,500 gallons of propellant per second had viewers wondering when it would stop.
The rumble lasted more than two minutes, with the crowd cheering a little halfway through before falling eerily quiet as the rocket continued to climb in altitude, eventually returning to a distant, fading hum. Then the crowd let go again.
There’s plenty of little hype on the Space Coast in the form of Falcon 9 and United Launch Alliance flights that regularly delight rocket fans, who are scheduled to launch more than once a week this year.
But these bigger rumbles remain few and far between. SLS will not fly for at least another 18 months, although SpaceX has a few Falcon Heavy launches scheduled in the coming year, including the USSF-67 mission for Space Force sometime in January.
That’ll have to hold down the rocket performance fortress until Artemis II is due for launch for NASA or SpaceX sends Starship to the space coast.
2022 Orlando Sentinels.
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