NASA and Boeing are set to conduct a second test fire today of the giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket core stage, which will launch the first lunar mission of the agency’s Artemis program early next year with the Orion spacecraft on an un-crewed flight test to the moon and back, as America aims to land humans on the moon again in the coming years.
But first, they need to validate that the core stage and its four RS-25 engines operate as planned, with a static test fire on the B-2 stand at Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi.
The test team conducted a pre-test briefing in the Test Control Center at Stennis early this morning, and have given a “GO” to proceed with testing and fueling more than 700,000 gallons of cryogenic, or supercooled, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellant that will fedd the four RS-25 engines during the test.
The hot fire will last up to 8 minutes, and is scheduled to take place during a two-hour window that begins at 3:00pm EDT. Live coverage will begin at 2:30pm EDT.
Today’s planned second test fire comes following a much shorter than anticipated debut test fire of 212 foot tall core stage two months ago at Stennis. The planned 8-minute test barely made it past 1-minute, before an automatic shutdown was triggered by intentionally conservative test parameters, according to NASA. After all, the rocket is the actual flight vehicle for the first Artemis moon mission, not just simply a test article.
The team at Stennis already powered up the core stage earlier this week for a final check of all its systems, before powering it up again on March 16 to start the countdown for the today’s second test.
As outlined in detail previously on AmericaSpace by Ben Evans, the SLS Hot Fire Test is the eighth and final step in the “Green Run”, a year-long campaign to wring out the Core Stage’s myriad systems ahead of the rocket’s maiden voyage and the uncrewed Artemis-1 mission around the Moon, possibly as soon as early 2022.
Five “functional” tests to validate the rocket’s Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) systems, evaluate its avionics and safety systems and check out its Main Propulsion System (MPS), Thrust Vector Control (TVC) and hydraulics were completed between January and September 2020. Satisfactory completion of these steps allowed Stennis teams to press into three “operational” tests, beginning last fall, which saw the Core Stage put through a mock countdown, fueled with its full load of propellants in a so-called “Wet Dress Rehearsal” (WDR) and all four RS-25 engines hot-fired.
Original plans called for the four engines—all of which are refurbished Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), with over 1.1 million seconds’ worth of “burn-time” and a total of 25 shuttle missions to their credit—to be fired for up to 485 seconds, approximating as closely as possible the conditions that they will encounter during the raging, eight-minute climb to orbit on a real mission.
To mimic the passage through a period of maximum aerodynamic turbulence (“Max Q”), about a minute after liftoff, the RS-25s were to be throttled back from their maximum 109-percent thrust level to 95 percent for about 30 seconds, then returned to full power. It was also expected that the engines would be “gimbaled” under TVC control to demonstrate their steering capabilities.
As the first test fire got underway and all four engines came alive, the first minute of stable thrust proceeded without incident. Then at 60 seconds, the pre-planned gimbaling test of the engines under TVC control got underway. Responsibility for gimbaling each engine fell to the TVC actuators, each powered by a Core Stage Auxiliary Power Unit (CAPU).
At approximately 61 seconds, CAPU-2—serving the Core Stage’s No. 2 engine—detected low hydraulic fluid levels and after a series of verification checks over the next two or three milliseconds to validate this reading, it shut itself down. The other three CAPUs momentarily increased their hydraulic pressures to 105 percent to compensate for this evolving situation. CAPU-2 then commanded the Core Stage flight computer to shut down the other engines. This was executed safely over the next few seconds and the Hot Fire Test ended after 67.2 seconds, which represented less than 15 percent of a full-flight-duration burn.
Summing up the first test fire, NASA noted that—had it been a “real” flight—the CAPU margins would have been higher and CAPU-2 would have continued to function nominally. “The specific logic that stopped the test is unique to the ground test, where the Core Stage is mounted in the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis,” NASA explained. “If this scenario occurred during a flight, the rocket would have continued to fly using the remaining CAPUs to power the Thrust Vector Control systems for the engines.”
Meanwhile, the teams at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida are wrapping up stacking of the giant rocket’s powerhouse solid rocket boosters (SRBs) atop a mobile launcher in NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Other parts and the spacecraft itself, Orion, are all at KSC awaiting arrival of the core stage following a successful test fire on March 18. In the meantime, KSC will finish installing electrical instrumentation and pyrotechnics, then test the systems on the SRBs.
“Seeing the Space Launch System solid rocket boosters stacked completely on the Mobile Launcher for the first time makes me proud of the entire team especially the Exploration Ground Systems crew at Kennedy who are assembling them and also the teams at Marshall and Northrop Grumman who designed, tested and built them,” said Bruce Tiller, the SLS boosters manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “This team has created the tallest, most powerful boosters ever built for flight, boosters that will help launch the Artemis I mission to the Moon.”
Once the test fire is complete, the core stage will be shipped to KSC on the Pegasus barge, arriving at KSC’s Turn Basin for offload and transport straight into the VAB, where it will be lifted and placed between the two SRBs and attached at the core stage engine and intertank sections. It will be a sight to see, as was such operations with the Apollo Saturn V and space shuttle missions in the very same building.