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NASA passes assembly milestone on the $18.6billion Space Launch System


The Space Launch System (SLS) ‘megarocket’ that will one day take astronauts to the moon and Mars has passed a major assembly milestone, according to NASA

The US space agency said the ten segments that make up the two booster rockets were vertically stacked over several weeks at the Kennedy Space Center. 

When launched, the $18.6 billion SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever made and capable of taking cargo and astronauts to the moon in a single trip. 

Passing this milestone brings NASA a step closer to the first uncrewed Artemis mission to the moon and back – due to launch on 312ft SLS by the end of this year.

Getting the rocket off the ground for Artemis I in 2021 is critical to meet the 2024 target of landing the first woman and next man on the moon with Artemis III. 

The Space Launch System twin solid rocket boosters are fully assembled and stacked on the mobile launcher at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida

The Space Launch System (SLS) 'megarocket' that will one day take astronauts to the moon and Mars has passed a major assembly milestone, according to NASA. This is an artists impression of the rocket as it will appear in space discarding its boosters

The Space Launch System (SLS) ‘megarocket’ that will one day take astronauts to the moon and Mars has passed a major assembly milestone, according to NASA. This is an artists impression of the rocket as it will appear in space discarding its boosters

SPACE LAUNCH SYSTEM CORE STATS 

Length: 212 feet

Diameter: 27.6 feet

Empty weight: 188,000 lbs

Material: Aluminium 2219 

Engines: 4xRS-24

Max Speed: Mach 23 

Capacity: 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 196,000 gallons of liquid oxygen

Engineers placed the first segment of the massive rocket on November 21, 2020, and continued the process until the final nose assembly was placed on March 2. 

Before the launch later in the year the core stage needs to arrive, and prior to that the team will finish installing electrical instruments and pyrotechnics.

When the SLS core stage arrives at Kennedy, technicians will stack it on the mobile launcher between the two boosters.

When it launches the Orion capsule on its journey around the moon it will be the most powerful rocket in the world – producing 8.8 million pounds of thrust.

‘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,’ said Bruce Tilleer, SLS booster manager at the 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.’

Artemis I will be an uncrewed test of the Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket as an integrated system ahead of crewed flights to the moon in 2023. 

This 2023 launch will be reminiscent of  Apollo 10 and is intended to act as a crewed dress rehearsal for the 2024 mission. 

On-board astronauts will separate from the propulsion stage and practice manually approaching and moving away from it as practice for future missions. 

They will also perform proximity operations and docking manners which will help inform the 2024 touchdown, dubbed Artemis III. 

Unlike Apollo 11, where the astronauts had less than a day on the moon, Artemis III will stay there for a week. 

The US space agency said the ten segments that make up the two booster rockets were vertically stacked over several weeks at the Kennedy Space Center

The US space agency said the ten segments that make up the two booster rockets were vertically stacked over several weeks at the Kennedy Space Center

NASA’S SPACE LAUNCH SYSTEM: THE MOST POWERFUL ROCKET EVER BUILT 

Nasa’s Space Launch System, or SLS, is an advanced launch vehicle that will ‘provide the foundation for human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit’, according to the space agency.

Launching with unprecedented thrust power, SLS will carry crews of up to four astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on missions to explore deep-space destinations.

Offering more payload mass, volume capability and energy to speed missions through space than any current launch vehicle, SLS is designed to evolve over several decades to keep up with modern technologies and payloads.

These include robotic scientific missions to places like the Moon, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. 

The rocket’s first launch, which will be unmanned, is set for 2021 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.  

NASA intends to send humans to ‘deep-space’ destinations such as Mars and the moon aboard the SLS, with a date for a crewed mission to the red planet set for the 2030s.

Under the Artemis program, NASA aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024 and establish sustainable lunar exploration.   

Getting to the Moon requires a powerful rocket ship to accelerate a spacecraft fast enough to overcome the pull of Earth’s gravity and set it on a precise trajectory 

SLS has four powerful engines at its base and two solid rocket boosters attached to either side – allowing it to carry larger payloads to the moon than the Saturn V rockets that took the Apollo astronauts. 

At liftoff, the SLS core stage and twin solid rocket boosters fire to propel the 5.75 million pound rocket off the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and send it into orbit, carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft. 

To do this, in a mere eight minutes, SLS’s four RS-25 engines burn 735,000 gallons of liquid propellant to create two million pounds of thrust and the twin rocket boosters burn more than two million pounds of solid propellant.      

Each of the two boosters that will help lift the rocket into space are divided into five segments – those pieces are what have been assembled on the mobile launcher.

This launcher will support it through testing and transfer it to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center later in the year when it is ready for liftoff. 

‘Stacking the solid rocket boosters is a huge milestone,’ NASA’s senior vehicle operations manager Cliff Lanham told the BBC. 

‘It means the rocket is being assembled on the mobile launcher and we are in the final stages of a long journey – getting to launch Artemis 1.’ 

SLS is still scheduled to launch Artemis 1 later this year, but the 2024 date for the first humans on the moon since 1972 is in doubt.

The first step for Artemis is an unmanned launch, called Artemis I, which is scheduled for late 2021, with the giant rocket SLS (pictured)

The first step for Artemis is an unmanned launch, called Artemis I, which is scheduled for late 2021, with the giant rocket SLS (pictured)

Getting the rocket off the ground for Artemis I in 2021 is critical to meet the 2024 target of landing the first woman and next man on the moon with Artemis III

Getting the rocket off the ground for Artemis I in 2021 is critical to meet the 2024 target of landing the first woman and next man on the moon with Artemis III

This ‘aggressive target date’ was set by the Trump administration, and while President Joe Biden backed the return to the moon, he hasn’t mentioned the date.

Professor Christopher Conselice from the University of Nottingham told MailOnline the 2024 date may well be technologically possible, but not on the current budget. 

‘It is extremely unlikely that that deadline will be met,’ he says.  

‘Billions of dollars more per year are required and were originally budgeted when Artemis was proposed. It’s likely the goal can be reached, but not by 2024.’ 

The megarocket is intended to return humanity to the lunar surface this decade — and is hoped will still launch on an unmanned orbit of the Moon in November. Pictured, an artist's impression of the Space Launch System blasting off on a mission

The megarocket is intended to return humanity to the lunar surface this decade — and is hoped will still launch on an unmanned orbit of the Moon in November. Pictured, an artist’s impression of the Space Launch System blasting off on a mission 

COMPARISON: SPACE LAUNCH SYSTEMS AND THEIR PRICE

Since the launch of Sputnik-1 – the first human made object to orbit the Earth – atop a Sputnik rocket in 1957, the world of rocketry has grown dramatically.

Once the preserve of national or pan-national space agencies, rocketry is now increasingly in the hands of commercial manufacturers.

This includes old-guard players like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, as well as startups like SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Blue Origin. 

Launch vehicles range in size from the currently in development Space Launch System from NASA to the tiny Electron from Rocket Lab.

The various sized vehicles can take objects from the very edge of space, to low Earth orbit and even out as far as the edge of our own solar system. 

TABLE TITLE
Name Cost per KG Cost per launch Height Payload to LEO Operator
Delta IV Heavy $12,195 $350 million 72 metres 28,700 kg United Launch Alliance
Atlas V $5,360 $110 million 58.3 metres 20,520 kg United Launch Alliance
Ariana 6 $17,800 $89 million 63 metres 5,000 kg ArianeGroup
Falcon 9 $2,192 $50 million 70 metres 22,800 kg SpaceX
Soyuz-2 $6,908 $48.5 million 46.3 metres 7,020 kg Roscosmos
SLS $15,384 $2 billion 111.25 metres 130,000 kg NASA
Starship $20* $2 million* 122 metres 100,000 kg* SpaceX
Neutron 0 0 40 metres 8,000 kg RocketLab
* Estimated or aspiration values 
Engineers placed the first segment of the massive rocket on November 21, 2020, and continued the process until the final nose assembly was placed on March 2. Artists impression

Engineers placed the first segment of the massive rocket on November 21, 2020, and continued the process until the final nose assembly was placed on March 2. Artists impression

Artemis I will be an uncrewed test of the Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket as an integrated system ahead of crewed flights to the moon in 2023

Artemis I will be an uncrewed test of the Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket as an integrated system ahead of crewed flights to the moon in 2023

One more piece of SLS needs to be installed before the rocket can take off – that is the orange core stage currently being evaluated at the Stennis Space Center.

It still needs to undergo a ‘hotfire’ test later this month – which involves firing its four engines for eight minutes – the time it takes to get SLS into space.

Once everything has been put in place NASA has a maximum of 12 months to get it into space as the joints connecting the segment have a one year lifespan. 

Engineers said that overly 'conservative' test parameters had been introduced that caused the mega-rocket's systems to go into shut down after just over a minute. Pictured, the SLS core stage undergoing an engine test firing

Engineers said that overly ‘conservative’ test parameters had been introduced that caused the mega-rocket’s systems to go into shut down after just over a minute. Pictured, the SLS core stage undergoing an engine test firing

SLS is a ‘super-heavy-lift launch vehicle’ that provides the foundation for human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit and will one day take astronauts to Mars. 

‘With its unprecedented power and capabilities, SLS is the only rocket that can send Orion, astronauts, and cargo to the Moon on a single mission,’ NASA said.

The rocket cost $18.6 billion to develop and is expected to cost about $2 billion for every launch – with a maximum payload to the moon of 101,400lb. 

NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the Moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the Moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard.

The SLS rocket will from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the Moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 



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