NASA has a new launch vehicle in the works. The Space Launch System (SLS) is a super-heavy launch system that will carry primary components of NASA’s larger missions into orbit, including astronauts and hardware for a manned Mars mission.
Today, NASA completed the final ground test of the rocket booster that will provide the lion’s share of the thrust to carry the SLS and its payloads to orbit.
What’s the SLS Look Like?
The SLS is similar to the Space Shuttle in a couple regards. First, it sports a combination of solid rocket boosters and liquid fueled rockets. It also has a large tank between the boosters that holds liquid hydrogen for fuel, and liquid oxygen for oxidizer. The similarities stop there. Instead of a big space ship riding on the back of the tank, the payload sits atop the whole stack. It is a much more traditional approach, but one that also carries much greater capability. Additionally, the liquid fueled engines are at the base of the tank, and the payload will likely carry upper stage engines of its own.
Now, I’ve been on board every operational Space Shuttle with the exception of Challenger. I’ve stood next to them on the launch pad, and looked up at their massive presence. The Shuttle was massive and awe inspiring. The SLS will be nearly twice as tall.
How Does SLS Launch Capability Compare to Other Launch Vehicles?
When complete, the SLS will be one of the most capable launch systems ever built, able to carry as much as 130 metric tons into low Earth orbit. To put it in perspective, the Space Shuttle could carry about 27 metric tons, and the Ariane 6, the European Space Agency’s most advanced rocket, slated for first launch in the 2020s, will only be able to carry about 21 metric tons. Now the truly sad thing, or something to be proud of, depending on your perspective, the Saturn V still beats them all out. It was able to carry a staggering 140 metric tons – and that was about 50 years ago.
Regardless, the SLS represents a return to the big muscle days of being able to launch huge payloads into space. Its first planned launch is in 2018, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Photo credit: NASA