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NASA inches closer to test next spacecraft

NASA Langley technicians work to attach the external panels for the Ares I-X crew module simulator. NASA image

WASHINGTON (BNS): NASA is inching closer to testing the new rocket as part of the Constellation Programme that will take humans to the moon.

Earlier this week, rocket hardware critical for the test, known as Ares I-X, was completed successfully at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton. The flight of Ares I-X will be an important step toward verifying analysis tools and techniques needed to develop Ares I, NASA’s next crew launch vehicle.

NASA said that the test launch is scheduled to lift off from Kennedy, during the summer of 2009. “It will climb about 25 miles in altitude during a two-minute powered flight, continuously measuring vehicle aerodynamics, controls and performance of the rocket's first stage. The launch will culminate with a test of the separation of the first stage from the rocket and deployment of the accompanying parachute system that will return the first stage to Earth for data and hardware recovery,” the space agency said.

Jonathan Cruz, deputy project manager at Langley for the Ares I-X crew module and launch abort system said that this launch will help to realise any shortcomings in the design and analysis phase. “We have a lot of confidence, but we need those two minutes of flight data before NASA can continue to the next phase of rocket development,” Jonathan Cruz said.

NASA said that the Langley-designed and built hardware is engineered to represent the Orion crew module and a launch abort system that increases crew safety. In the last week of January, the rocket elements will be shipped from Langley to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The hardware and other elements will be integrated into the Ares I-X rocket, the first in a series of unpiloted test vehicles, NASA said.

“The simulated crew module and launch abort system will complete the nose of the rocket. About 150 sensors on the hardware will measure aerodynamic pressure and temperature at the nose of the rocket and contribute to measurements of vehicle acceleration and angle of attack,” NASA said. This data will help the space agency to understand whether the design is safe and stable in flight, before allowing astronauts to travel into orbit and beyond.

“To ensure the rocket’s flight characteristics are understood fully, extreme care was taken to fabricate the simulated crew module and launch abort tower precisely. To compare flight results with preflight predictions confidently, these full-scale hardware components needed to be accurate reflections of the shape and physical properties of the models used in computer analyses and wind tunnel tests,” NASA said.

The space agency said that the simulated crew module is a full-scale representation of the vehicle that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2015, to the moon in the 2020s and, ultimately, to points beyond. “The conical module has the same basic shape as the Apollo module but, at approximately five meters in diameter, is significantly larger. The launch abort system simulator is 46 feet in length. It will fit over the crew module and tower above it, forming the nose of the rocket,” NASA said.

Researchers and managers at Langley worked to overcome multiple challenges as the Orion crew module and launch abort system simulators took shape. One team performed fabrication and assembly work in conjunction with an off-site contractor, and another team installed the sensors once the crew module and launch abort tower were completed, NASA said.

“We are a highly matrixed team - a lot of people from various organisations - that had to work together successfully on a tight schedule,” explained Kevin Brown, project manager at Langley for the Ares I-X crew module and launch abort system project.

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