Successful test for Nasa's giant Moon rocket

The test on Thursday was required to collect data on how the core stage behaves during critical operations.
The test on Thursday was required to collect data on how the core stage behaves during critical operations.PHOTO: NASA/ROBERT MARKOWITZ

WASHINGTON (AFP) - National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) successfully carried out a key static test of its troubled Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on Thursday (March 18), a win for the agency as it prepares to return to the Moon.

The second "hot fire" test saw all four of the rocket's RS-25 engines fire simultaneously at 4.40pm Eastern time for the full duration of eight minutes, producing a maximum of 1.6 million pounds of thrust (7.1 million newtons).

"The applause says a lot about how the team feels," Dr Bill Wrobel, an official in charge of the test, said during a livestream after the control room began clapping.

"Looks pretty good right now," he added.

The test's success will come as a relief to Nasa after an earlier run involving the 65m-high core stage at the Stennis Space Centre near Bay St Louis, Mississippi, was cut short in January.

Nasa released a statement following that test that said "no major repairs" were required after the engines were shut down just one minute in.

The test on Thursday was required to collect data on how the core stage behaves during critical operations such as throttling engines up and down and moving them in a variety of patterns.

The rocket's tanks were filled with 2.6 million litres of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which when burned, sent a huge plume of water vapour soaring into the sky.

Engineers will analyse the data and decide whether the stage is ready to be refurbished and transported by barge to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

There, it will be assembled with the other parts of the SLS rocket and the Orion crew capsule, which are being prepared for the Artemis I launch later this year - an uncrewed mission.

The SLS programme has been beset by delays and cost overruns, and was initially due to be operational in 2016.

Ars Technica reported this week Nasa was conducting an internal review of its affordability.

Nasa said last August the baseline development cost was US$9.1 billion (S$12.2 billion) and the initial ground systems capability required US$2.4 billion.

It has also been criticised as a "jobs programme" for Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama, as well as for its key contractors Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman.

While SLS is far more powerful than SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket used to put satellites in orbit and take crews to the ISS, billionaire Elon Musk's company is also working on a prototype rocket called Starship that will be capable of deep space exploration.

Starship's last three test flights have ended in stunning explosions, but analysts believe the mishaps could paradoxically be accelerating the spaceship's development, eventually making it a viable alternative to SLS.