Flames and fanfare as NASA's Mars mission rocket aces testing

As ways to disturb the peace and quiet of the desert go, firing up the most powerful rocket in the world has to be near the top of the list. That was the fun & games had by NASA and Orbital ATK today, testing out the new Space Launch System (SLS) booster that will one day take first uncrewed probes and then astronauts to Mars.

Of course, when that happens the SLS will be pointing upwards toward the skies, rather than horizontally across the ground. Developed by Orbital ATK to NASA's requirements the so-called QM-2 ("Qualification Motor 2") motor is 154 feet long and 12 feet in diameter, and capable of producing a vast 3.6 million pounds of maximum thrust.

That, to put it into a vaguely comprehendible context, is more thrust than you'd get from fourteen 747-400 jets at takeoff.

Preparations for the test began a month ago, with Orbital ATK's engineers chilling the motor down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That was part of making sure the SLS can handle low temperature conditions; last year, QM-1 was tested at 90 degrees, so as to see how it dealt with the other end of the scale.

During the burn, internal temperatures reached nearly 6,000 degrees, NASA says,

More than 82 tests were carried out on the rocket during its 126 seconds of ignition, during which flames jetted out at Mach 3. There's a lot to measure, too: everything from acoustics through vibrations and the behavior of the nozzles.

NASA's plan is to use the SLS to take the Orion spacecraft to the red planet in 2018, blasting off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Dubbed EM-1 – Exploratory Mission 1 – it will see SLS equipped with two of Orbital ATK's five-segment solid rocket boosters. That'll contribute more than three-quarters of the total thrust required to get the SLS and Orion off the ground and away from Earth's gravity.

"Seeing this test today," William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington said of the test, "and experiencing the sound and feel of approximately 3.6 million pounds of thrust, helps us appreciate the progress we're making to advance human exploration and open new frontiers for science and technology missions in deep space."