NASA Tests Space Launch System Fuel Tank by Tearing It Apart

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Generally, you don’t want rocket fuel tanks to rupture because that probably means something is about to explode. The fuel is supposed to stay inside where it can explode in a controlled manner upon leaving the rocket. The exception to the no-rupture rule is when you’re testing a new design, and that’s where NASA is in the development of the long-delayed Space Launch System (SLS). You can see the vehicle’s main fuel tank blow wide open in the agency’s latest video. 

NASA conducted its latest round of testing on the SLS at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. When it’s complete, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket in the world, and that means it has to carry a lot of fuel. The large orange tank will hold liquid hydrogen fuel during missions, but it was empty for the test. Instead, NASA used large hydraulic pistons on the 215-foot test stand to compress, twist, and bend the tank until it fails. The goal is to show that it can survive forces even greater than it will experience during flight. 

This tank was specially outfitted with an array of sensors to record exactly how it failed, but it was otherwise identical to the tanks that will fly on the SLS. NASA also pointed high-speed cameras and ultra-sensitive microphones at the tank to record its final moments. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine just posted the video to Twitter, showing the tank blow apart in spectacular fashion. 

NASA reports that the tank withstood 260 percent of the expected flight load during the test. That’s within 3 percent of the tank’s expected failure point. NASA didn’t detect any premature buckling or cracking in the walls as the pressure ramped up, indicating the tank design will perform as expected in the SLS. 

In addition to the liquid fuel engines, the SLS will also have a pair of giant solid rocket boosters helping it get off the ground. Together, they will have enough power to hoist large payloads into space and make manned missions to the moon and Mars a reality. Currently, NASA expects to conduct an uncrewed flight of the SLS and Orion capsule (Artemis 1) in late 2020. The Orion spacecraft will orbit the moon and return to Earth. The SLS will carry its first human passengers into space in 2022 or 2023.

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