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NASA test-fires rocket with uncertain future

NASA test-fired a new first-stage motor in the Utah desert Tuesday for a rocket that is facing a shaky future.
Image: Ares I rocket test-fire
A bright plume of exhaust roars from the end of a five-segment solid rocket booster during an Aug. 31, 2010 test of the first stage for NASA's Ares I rocket in Promontory, Utah. NASA TV
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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 lying 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.

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 1 rocket to launch the Orion spacecraft, as well as part of the larger Ares 5 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 2011 budget proposal for NASA 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 spokeswoman 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."

The test began at 11:26 a.m. ET and lasted about two minutes.

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 (47 meters) long.

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 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.