NASA tests rocket engine, a big step in sending humans into deep space

Space agency fires up rocket engine that will take astronauts to Mars, asteroid

RS-25 engine test

NASA has hit a major milestone in its mission to send humans into deep space and travel to Mars.

The space agency today for the first time successfully tested its new deep space RS-25 rocket engine at Stennis Space Center, a NASA rocket testing facility in Mississippi. The engine was fired up for 500 seconds, or about 8.5 minutes.

The next time the rocket fires for that long, it will be carrying humans on their first deep-space mission in more than 45 years.

"What a great moment for NASA and Stennis," said Rick Gilbrech, director of the Stennis Space Center. "We have exciting days ahead with a return to deep space and a journey to Mars, and this test is a very big step in that direction."

NASA has been laser-focused on sending humans into deep space with a goal of landing astronauts on Mars by the 2030s.

In that pursuit, the space agency has robotic rovers Curiosity and Opportunity working on the surface of Mars, collecting rock and soil samples and looking for evidence that the Red Planet might once have been able to support life.

NASA also has orbiters, including Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, working to transmit communications to the rovers, while also studying the Martian atmosphere.

In May 2015, NASA administrator Charles Bolden went so far as to say that the agency's scientists now know enough to safely get humans to Mars and back home again.

Today's rocket engine test was a big step toward making that journey actually happen.

The RS-25 flight engine for NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) is being built specifically to carry humans on deep-space missions, including trips to study an asteroid, as well as to land on Mars.

Four RS-25 engines will help power the SLS core stage.

"One more powerful step forward accomplished on the SLS journey," said Ronnie Rigney, RS-25 project manager at Stennis. "It really feels great to be part of such an important program in our nation."

NASA noted that the engines used on initial deep space missions will be revamped engines left over from the space shuttle program. They are considered workhorse engines that are among the most proven in the world, having powered 135 space shuttle missions from 1981 to 2011.

The engines are being reconfigured to fire at 109% of their original thrust level to provide a combined 2 million pounds of thrust.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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