NASA is testing an improved megarocket engine ahead of future lunar missions

The manned Artemis-5 mission to the moon won’t happen until 2028 at the earliest, but the mission and those following it will benefit from upgraded RS-25 engines that NASA will use to power future iterations of its gargantuan Space Launch System rocket.

This month’s first hot-fire test of the redesigned RS-25 engine lasted 209.5 seconds, short of the planned 500 seconds, according to a NASA statement. The space agency conducted the test Dec. 14 at the Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, with the engine firmly attached to the Fred Haise test stand. Footage of the test is available on Stennis’ Facebook page.

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A monitoring system automatically triggered the early shutdown. Engineers from Aerojet Rocketdyne, developer of the RS-25 engine, and NASA are now looking at the data to evaluate the test and determine why it ended early. A future hot-fire test must eventually last over the full duration, since 500 seconds (8.5 minutes) is the same time it takes for the RS-25 to send SLS into space.

The RS-25 hot fire test took place on December 14 at the Fred Haise Test Facility at the Stennis Space Center.

“Similar to launch, test campaigns are dynamic events that allow us to learn more about the SLS rocket hardware,” Johnny Heflin, liquid engine manager for the Space Launch System at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in the statement. “Preliminary data shows that the engine was nominally functioning.”

The fact that the test did not run to its full duration is hardly a problem. The improved engine is only needed for the Artemis 5 mission, which is currently planned for 2028. Through NASA’s Artemis program, the United States is attempting to revisit the moon and eventually plan manned voyages to Mars. The recently completed Artemis 1 mission was a great success and served as a precursor to more complex voyages to the moon.

NASA currently owns a dozen RS-25 engines, derived from retired space shuttles, modified for use on the SLS core stage. The space agency had 16, but four of those used during Artemis 1 are now on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This will be the fate of the remaining 12, which will see action throughout Artemis 2, 3, and 4. SLS is a consumable rocket that NASA and its partners must build new versions of for each Artemis mission.

The updated RS-25 features a new powerhead component, nozzle and controls, the latter two of which have not yet been installed. The Fred Haise test stand itself has recently received a number of upgrades, including work to improve the stand’s high-pressure water system, flame deflector and thrust vectoring system, among other improvements.

The engine with the designation E10001 is delivered to the test stand in Stennis

The engine with the designation E10001 is delivered to the test stand in Stennis

The latest test at Stennis comes ahead of certification testing scheduled for early 2023. Once this is complete, Aerojet Rocketdyne can kickstart the production process and produce multiple units for future Artemis missions. The company currently has a contract with NASA to produce 24 new RS-25 engines.

Each RS-25 engine weighs approximately 7,800 pounds and produces 512,300 pounds of thrust. During Artemis 1 launch, SLS generated around 8.8 million pounds of thrust, with power contributions also coming from the two solid rocket boosters.

More: The best space images of 2022

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