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NASA's new powerful giant rocket for deep space missions to fly in 2018

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Artistic concept of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

WASHINGTON (BNS): The NASA-designed Space Launch System (SLS) -- a powerful new giant rocket being built to ferry astronauts on deep space missions -- has completed a critical review phase and will have its debut test flight not earlier than November 2018.

The space agency officials on Wednesday approved the mega-budget programme's progression from formulation to development.

"We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars. And we're firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.

For its first flight test, the SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an unmanned Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit.

The first SLS configuration would be built at a cost of $7.021 billion starting from 2014.

In its most powerful configuration, SLS will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), which will enable missions even farther into our Solar System, including such destinations as an asteroid and Mars, the space agency said.

The SLS has been in development for three years already and NASA plans to develop three variants of the powerful rocket system. Designed to be flexible and evolvable to meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs, the new rocket would use the Space Shuttle main engines and shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters.

Previously, the initial flight test of the heavy-lift rocket was scheduled for 2017.

"After rigorous review, we're committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.. and we're going to stand behind that commitment," NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said.

SLS will be the world's most capable rocket. In addition to opening new frontiers for explorers traveling aboard the Orion capsule, the SLS may also offer benefits for science missions that require its use and can't be flown on commercial rockets.

The next phase of development for SLS is the Critical Design Review, a programmatic gate that reaffirms the agency's confidence in the programme planning and technical risk posture, NASA said.

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