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NASA Tests New Rocket Motor Despite Uncertain Future

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This story was updated at 1:03 p.m. ET.

NASA test-fired a new first-stage rocket motor in the Utah desert Tuesday for a rocket that is facing a shaky future.

The space agency and contractor Alliant Techsystems test-fired a longer version of the solid rocket boosters used to launch space shuttles to see how the rocket motor performs under cold-weather conditions. The rocket was laying on its side during the ground test, belching a huge plume of exhaust into a nearby hillside at ATK's proving ground in Promontory, Utah.

Uncertain path

The five-segment rocket motor is one segment longer than those used for NASA shuttles. It was initially designed to serve as the first stage for NASA's planned Ares I rocket to launch the Orion spacecraft, as well as part of the larger Ares V heavy-lift booster.

Yet those rockets, and NASA's overarching Constellation program to send astronauts back to the moon, will be canceled if President Barack Obama's proposal for NASA under his 2011 budget request is approved by Congress. Orion space capsules are slated to serve as a rescue ship for space station astronauts once NASA's shuttle fleet retires next year.

Lawmakers are divided over the new plan, and the future of the Ares rockets is uncertain as various bills make their way through Congress.

For now, though, work on Constellation programs soldiers on.

"This team here is focused entirely on this test," NASA spokesperson Jennifer Morcone Stanfield of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., told before the rocket test firing. "This is part of the existing Constellation program plan and that work is continuing."

Smooth test

The test began at 11:26 a.m. EDT (1526 GMT), and lasted about two minutes. Following the burn, engineers were able to take a look at the preliminary data from the test, said Alex Priskos, first stage manager for Ares Projects at Marshall, during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

The data "look absolutely excellent," he said. "We captured all the data we were after and we're looking very much forward to being able to further assess."

The motor, called DM-2, is capable of producing about 22 million horsepower and generating as much as 3.6 million pounds of thrust.  It is about 154 feet (nearly 47 meters) long.

Even if Ares rockets aren't part of NASA's plans going forward, the lessons learned from the test will be useful to help decide on rocket designs in the future, said Doug Cooke, NASA's associate administrator for space exploration.

"The experience gained during this test is all contributing to our understating of what it takes to make these decisions," Cooke said.

Cool runnings

Today's firing was the second in a series of tests designed to make sure the rocket can function at different temperatures. An earlier motor test in September 2009 took place at ambient temperature. Today, the rocket motor was cooled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius).

"You want to test the different temperatures because you can't control the weather at the launch site," Stanfield said. "This verifies the performance requirements for the booster because solid rocket performance differs slightly in different temperatures."

The design of this engine for Ares is based on the solid rocket motors that help launch the space shuttles, but with a few tweaks and improvements.

"Tests such as DM-2 allow our team to improve and enhance existing technology essential to maintaining America's preeminence in space, even as we look to new designs, new materials and new technologies with the potential to transform the future of human spaceflight," Andy Schorr, first stage, five-segment motor lead for Ares Projects at Marshall, said in a statement.