Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ares I-X Prepares for Critical Test Flight

Early Tuesday, the Ares I-X rocket was slowly moved from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Complex 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Launch is set for October 27 at 8 a.m. EDT. If rescheduling is necessary, other launch opportunities are available October 28 and 29.

The Ares I-X is a full-scale replica of the Ares I, a key element in NASA's Constellation program. The goals of Constellation are to (1) replace the soon-to-retire Space Shuttle orbiters with a safer, lower-cost rocket to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit and (2) development of the Ares V, a large, unmanned heavy lift rocket that would support eventual expeditions to the moon.

While the 327-foot-tall Ares I-X is a replica, not all of its elements match the final Ares I design. The 1.8-million-pound Ares I-X rocket is composed of two stages. The first stage is a four-segment solid-fuel booster based on technology from the Space Shuttle program (the production Ares I will have five segments), the second stage is a dummy and perched atop is a mockup of an Orion crew capsule and escape rocket. More than 700 sensors have been mounted on the launch vehicle as well as three television cameras in order gather as much data as possible.
The goals of the test flight are to verify computer models and flight characteristics during the critical first two minutes of flight when aerodynamic stresses are most severe. When launched, the first stage will fire for two minutes, boosting the vehicle to an altitude of about 130,000 feet and a velocity of nearly five times the speed of sound. At that point, roughly 43 miles due east of the launch site, the first stage will separate and fall to the Atlantic Ocean, testing the new parachutes designed for the Ares I. The dummy upper stage will crash into the Atlantic about 147 miles from the launch site and will not be recovered.

The total cost of the Ares I-X project--including launch vehicle and all preparations and management--is expected to be around $445 million. This launch is a critical test flight, as it will likely play a major role in the ongoing debate about NASA's post-shuttle manned space program.
The White House is currently reassessing the program, considering five options that have been developed by an independent panel of space experts led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. Only one of the five options includes the Ares I. The test flight of the Ares I-X could prove critical to the future of the Constellation program. A success would not guarantee a continuation of Constellation, but a failure could prove fatal.

To learn more about the Aries launch vehicles, the Orion spacecraft, or the Constellation program in general, check out these links:

NASA’s Constellation Program

NASA’s Ares I-X Launch Vehicle, part of the Constellation program site

NASA’s Ares Launch Vehicle Family, part of the Constellation program site

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft, part of the Constellation program site


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