Fired up for Mars: World’s most powerful booster passes final test

Thousands of space enthusiasts lined a Utah desert roadside June 28 to watch a horizontal rocket motor go nowhere.

There was no liftoff — but space agency officials were thrilled all the same.

That’s because this motor (technically it’s part of the “Space Launch System Booster”) delivers enough thrust to help power a rocket past the moon and on toward Mars, and possibly beyond. Orbital ATK, the private company that developed the booster, successfully test-fired its motor in a final preflight tuneup. It may power its first mission as soon as 2018.

Here’s what happened during the two-minute burn:

  • The motor burned through 6 tons of propellant per second, producing 1.6 million kilograms of thrust.
  • 6 million kilograms of concrete kept the booster anchored to the ground
  • With flames and gases shooting out of the rear nozzle at 2,000 degrees Celsius, the surrounding sand melted into glass.
  • Engineers cooled the motor to about 4 degrees Celsius to simulate a very chilly day on the launch pad at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

Now that the booster has passed the second of its two qualifying burns, it will head to the launch pad in 2018 to help send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft past the moon and back, delivering more than a dozen miniature satellites called “cubesats” from international partners.

Two boosters, together with four upgraded space shuttle engines, will power NASA’s Space Launch System for missions to deep space and eventually, to Mars.