NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Capsule – A new era of space travel?

As many of you know, a large area of our group’s research is based around extra-terrestrial materials; interplanetary dust particles, meteorites and lunar rocks to name just a few. As such, we are highly interested in the future of manned space flight to allow the return of samples from the surfaces of the Moon, Mars and asteroids.

March 11th 2015 marked the first fully fuelled test firing of the new SLS booster rocket and was a complete success, hinting at a bright future for NASA’s latest launch vehicle. But questions arise from this testing like ‘is it really worth the money?’ and ‘what can this new vehicle do that the others cannot?’. So I’ve put together a bit of a background to this new launch vehicle, along with the new manned deep-space capsule, in the hopes that these questions will soon be answered!

The test-firing of an SLS Booster rocket at the Promontory testing facility, Utah. Image courtesy of www.universetoday.com

The test-firing of an SLS Booster rocket at the Promontory testing facility, Utah. Image courtesy of NASA.

The Space Launch System (SLS) 

The end of the Apollo program marked the end of an era for human exploration as no manned missions have flown beyond low-earth orbit since. However, the SLS is designed to put an end to this and pave the way forward for cost-effective human exploration of the solar system.

In September of 2011, NASA announced its new Space Launch System (SLS) – a new era of spacecraft that would ‘take astronauts further into space than ever before’ with the potential for missions to lunar orbit, descent to the lunar surface and even to Mars! It will have greater payload and efficiency than the Saturn V rockets and many parts of the vehicle will be re-usable, enabling the costs of space flight to stay affordable.

Engineering the SLS

Mechanically, the SLS is a combination of features from the Space Shuttle and from the Saturn V rocket. The main Core Stage is similar in shape and concept to the Saturn V – the crew and cargo are based at the top of the rocket and will detach when the main fuel tank is empty. The small detachable capsule will have a minimum payload of 70 tonnes, meaning a large supply boost to the ISS is possible, or it could carry its own fuel and rocket engine allowing for ejection from low-earth orbit. The actual fuel tank inside the Core Stage shell will be a modified Space Shuttle booster tank with four RS-25 engines at its base (the same engines used on the Space Shuttle).

The RS25 engine, used to launch the SLS into space. Image courtesy of NASA.

The RS-25 engine, used to launch the SLS into space. Fuelled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen, this rocket engine measures 200ft high and almost 28ft in diameter. Image courtesy of NASA.

Alongside the Core Stage will be two solid-fuel rocket boosters. As proved in the test firing, the rocket boosters worked perfectly and met all the necessary requirements to be spaceworthy. This is where the combination idea plays its part – the central Saturn V-like rocket with Space Shuttle-like boosters to give it that extra push to get large payloads into low earth orbit.

An expanded view of the Block 1 crew-bearing setup of the SLS. Image courtesy of NASA.

An expanded view of the Block 1 crew-bearing setup of the SLS. Image courtesy of NASA.

The advantage of using similar but upgraded designs is that many of the test facilities built for the Saturn V and Space Shuttle can be modified and reused to test the SLS, meaning huge time and money savings as the test facilities don’t have to be built from scratch. The SLS will not have to undergo the rigorous testing that previous rockets had because it uses technology that has already proven itself to be extremely reliable.

There are three proposed SLS designs – named Block 1, Block 1b and Block 2. Block 1 is designed to carry cargo to low-earth orbit. A slightly larger Block 1b will have the same Core Stage and rocket boosters as Block 1 but with have a different upper stage, named the Exploration Upper Stage. This will be capable of carrying a larger amount of fuel along with a capsule designed for carrying and sustaining astronauts throughout deep space travel. The largest setup, Block 2, will stand taller than the Saturn V rocket, have a similar payload and be equipped with larger re-usable rocket boosters. It will also bear the Exploration Upper Stage and will allow longer missions due to an increased payload.

The various types of SLS design - from the smaller Block 1 for low Earth orbit missions to the larger Block 2 for deep space missions.

The various types of SLS design – from the smaller Block 1 for low Earth orbit missions to the larger Block 2 for deep space missions. Image courtesy of http://www.spaceflightinsider.com

The Orion Capsule

The key to the success of the SLS with be Orion: the first capsule designed for sustained human spaceflight beyond low earth orbit. This will enable a crew of up to four astronauts to enter ‘deep-space’ for up to 21 days, allowing manned missions to reach distances further than ever before and enable long-term studies of the Moon. The Orion capsule will also be used for returning the crew from space as it contains a heat shield and the most advanced safety features specifically designed for high-speed re-entry.

The December 2014 re-entry test flight was a complete success and work on the Orion spacecraft is ongoing to fully analyse certain aspects of the test (for example the heat shield, a key component of safe re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere).

Orion crew module after splash down in the Pacific Ocean following a successful test flight. Image courtesy of NASA.

Orion crew module after splash down in the Pacific Ocean following a successful test flight. Image courtesy of NASA.

SLS mission plans

The increased payload of the SLS, along with its detachable boosters, allows for the most efficient fuel/weight entry into low earth orbit. One potential set of future missions is to deliver large amounts of cargo to and from the International Space Station, should anything happen to the current mission plans. However, this isn’t the primary aim of SLS!

In a combination between the Space Launch System and the Orion Capsule, Exploration Mission 1 is the first mission planned for this amazing duo which will take the craft around 70,000 km past the Moon before returning to Earth. This will enable testing of just about every plan, procedure and piece of engineering in preparation for a manned mission.

Exploration Mission 2 will be a manned flight to orbit the Moon for around four days and again, test critical mission procedures and components during the ten to fourteen day flight. This mission is aimed to take place no later than 2021 and will contain a crew of four astronauts.

Future plans include a series of missions to the Moon, both orbiter and lunar landing missions. The lunar landing missions could even take place on the lunar far-side which has never before been explored by mankind! Near-Earth asteroid missions are also hot on the agenda, as are missions to Mars and its moons Phobos and Deimos. As the craft can carry up to 70,000 tonnes of cargo, some unmanned spacecraft missions are proposed, such as a mission to Uranus (which will include a probe that will descend through the Uranian atmosphere), a mission to place a solar probe into orbit around the Sun and even an updated Skylab mission (rather aptly named Skylab II).

The potential destinations of the different SLS designs. Image courtesy of NASA.

The potential destinations of the different SLS designs. Image courtesy of NASA.

All of the potential missions planned for SLS and Orion, along with the amazing successes of the their respective test flights, results in a huge amount of excitement building around this futuristic craft and an unprecedented potential for future human exploration of the solar system! I hope that I have convinced you that this will be a very worthwhile use of NASA’s budget and will be able to complete a far wider range of missions than previous launch vehicles. Watch this space for more news and information on the upcoming SLS and the Orion module flights!

Concept art of the SLS on its journey to the launchpad. I certainly hope this concept art will soon become a reality! Image courtesy of NASA.

Concept art of the SLS on its journey to the launchpad. I certainly hope this concept art will soon become a reality! Image courtesy of NASA.

Extras

For more information regarding the SLS and Orion, the NASA website contains posts about the ongoing work and test flights along with interesting fact sheets and future missions:

http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/orion/

http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/

Also, check out the NASA 3DV app for more information on NASA’s upcoming deep space missions:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/nasa-3dv/id943175245?mt=8

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About Dayl Martin

I'm currently a first-year PhD student at the University of Manchester studying lunar meteorites and minerals using mid-infrared light. Particular interests of mine are lunar rocks and minerals, geological mapping and spectroscopy of planetary surfaces and the formation and evolution of the Moon. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me via e-mail. Happy reading!
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2 Responses to NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Capsule – A new era of space travel?

  1. Michael Bouchard says:

    Great write up Dayl! I’m personally super stoked about SLS’s potential. I did want to point out that while there is a lot of potential for the rocket, the plans for use are lagging. Short of the two proposed missions (which boil down to engineering shake down cruises) there has not been a clearly stated intended use. The SLS is a relict of the canceled Constellation program (read 2010-2020 return to the moon). The Ares I and Ares V rockets had lots of jobs and contracts attached to them already, and were saved the Congressional axe by turning into the “Senate Launch System.” As it stands the SLS cannot compete with mature and quickly maturing, cheaper private sector solutions for ISS cargo and crew transport. So it is left to be the heavy lifter of deep space robotic and beyond LEO human exploration. Which is awesome! Having a rocket of this caliber on the shelf is totally worth it and opens up all kinds of possibilities. However most of the ideas I’ve seen have come from Boeing and other external studies looking into SLS usage. I really hope NASA takes the opportunity presented and makes something great of it, and that the SLS does not become the “rocket to nowhere!”

    • Dayl Martin says:

      Thanks Michael! I completely agree – the upcoming missions are exciting and a great way of thoroughly testing the SLS while achieving some short-term science goals but there needs to be more input regarding future missions to the Moon and beyond. This could be the next step after Apollo for potential Moon landings and lunar exploration in general (especially of the far-side) provided this receives the support from NASA of course! I’ll be sure to check out that document. Thanks again for commenting!

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