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NASA assembling powerful Ares I-X rocket, prepares for mid-2009 test launch

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NASA assembling powerful Ares I-X rocket, prepares for mid-2009 test launch

Hampton (VA) – NASA’s Langley Research Center plays host to an Orion crew module and abort system simulator, components of the upcoming Ares I-X launch vehicle. Designed to be a less powerful rocket than the also planned Ares V rocket, the Ares I will eventually carry crew and components into space for NASA’s return to the moon and on to Mars. The first test flight will occur Summer, 2009.

While NASA reports using “powerful computers and software programs to design the rocket that will carry crew and cargo to space after the space shuttle retires,” it is ultimately being assembled right now by hand at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The first test launch of the Ares I-X craft will take place at Kennedy Space Center, FL, in the summer of 2009. It will lift off, climb 25 miles (132,000 feet) in a two-minute full-power test of the Ares I-X’s first stage rocket. It will then separate and initiate the parachute recovery system returning to Earth. Later tests of the Ares I-Y in 2013 will include a test of the Orion crew-module ejection system and its safe return to Earth during a simulated aborted launch.

NASA’s 2009 test flight will also include a necessary test, the real-world analysis of the craft’s aerodynamic properties. NASA will literally be testing if the craft’s design is “safe and stable in flight.” According to NASA, “This is a question that must be answered before astronauts begin traveling into orbit and beyond.”

Ares rocket fleet

The Ares rocket series, currently under development and assembly for a mid-2000-teen launch, is comprised of the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles. The Ares I is a single-engine light lift vehicle for regular routine service to the ISS, as well as launching crew and component modules into orbit for man’s return to the moon around 2020. The Ares V vehicle is a heavy lift craft capable of launching 5x more mass than the space shuttle.

These new spacecraft are comprised of several individual components, only some of which are reusable. The space shuttle missions demonstrated that a fully reusable craft is not always the most cost effective. This is due to rigorous post-touchdown examinations and teardowns required before the craft can be re-certified for use on the next mission. Also, a fully reusable craft must be designed for maximum loads on repeated launches, as well as being fully modular.

J-2X

Above the first stage, which will burn for two minutes, is the J-2X rocket engine. This stage will complete the stage two burn and propel the remaining portions of the launch vehicle into orbit. It is a liquid hydrogen / liquid oxygen based engine which will produce up to 294K lbf of thrust. This stage will be a single-engine component on both the Ares I and Ares V rockets. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne won the $1.2 billion dollar contract to design, develop and test the J-2X rocket, which is the latest version of the J-2 series with roots back to 1964.

Cargo space and testing

Above the rocket stages are the cargo space and at the very top is the Orion crew module. The test launch taking place next summer will include simulated modules of comparable weight, shape and design, but will be nonfunctional placeholders only there for equal weight distribution.

NASA will use data gathered from the actual test flight to verify the tools used in the craft’s development. When certified, further computer-simulated development will continue on the Ares I craft.

Presently, the Orion crew module and launch abort system simulators are being constructed. There are 150 sensors in these modules which must be installed and tested.

NASA plans to begin using the Ares I rocket to return to the International Space Station by 2015. It will be used, along with the Ares V launch vehicle, for a return to the moon by 2020. NASA also plans to go to Mars and other locations in our solar system, though no solid timeframes are being reported.

NASA has a critical design review of the vehicle coming up in 2010. The Ares rockets are part of NASA’s Constellation program, which includes the return-to-moon mission in 2020.