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RS-25 engines certified for future Artemis missions after long testing program
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RS-25 engines certified for future Artemis missions after long testing program
by Clarence Oxford
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Apr 08, 2024

L3Harris Technologies and Aerojet Rocketdyne have concluded a comprehensive series of development and certification tests for the RS-25 engine, confirming its readiness for upcoming Artemis missions, starting with Artemis V. These tests were carried out at NASA's Stennis Space Center, involving a total of 45 development tests and 24 certification tests.

The RS-25 engines, crucial for the propulsion of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), have undergone significant upgrades to meet the needs of future Artemis missions. Originally used in NASA's Space Shuttle Program, these engines are being repurposed with modern enhancements for the SLS. The first four SLS missions will use refurbished RS-25 engines, while subsequent missions will incorporate newly built engines.

Mike Lauer, RS-25 program director at Aerojet Rocketdyne, shared insights on the transition: "At the end of the Space Shuttle Program, NASA had 16 engines remaining, sufficient for four SLS flights. For subsequent missions, our objective was to modernize the RS-25 to enhance affordability and performance without compromising its proven reliability."

The modernized RS-25 engines will operate at 111% of their rated thrust level, an increase from the 104.5% during the shuttle era and 109% for the initial Artemis missions. This enhancement reflects significant advancements in engine design and manufacturing.

Significant improvements include the adoption of 3D printing techniques, specifically in the production of the Pogo Accumulator Assembly-a vital component for stabilizing the rocket during flight. This method has reduced system welds by 78%, demonstrating the viability of 3D printing for other engine parts. Currently, over 30 components of the new RS-25 engines utilize 3D printing technology.

Another major advancement is in the Main Combustion Chambers (MCC), where Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP) has been employed. This technique uses high pressure and heat to create durable bonds between engine components, capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and pressures. This process not only improves the durability and reliability of the engines but also significantly reduces both cost and production time.

The engine's controller has also been upgraded, featuring 20 times the processing capability of its predecessors. It is lighter, more reliable, and capable of real-time adjustments to engine operations. The controller ensures optimal engine performance by adjusting thrust and mixture ratios and monitoring critical parameters like turbopump speed and combustion pressures.

Further, the nozzle of the RS-25 has been redesigned for better manufacturability. It must endure extreme temperatures, from the frigid cold of liquid hydrogen to the scorching heat of combustion gases. The team has successfully reduced labor hours and material waste through the adoption of new manufacturing tools and techniques, which improved between the production of the first and fourth nozzle units.

The culmination of these developments was demonstrated through 69 hot-fire tests designed to push the engines to their operational limits and beyond, ensuring they can handle a range of challenging flight conditions. This rigorous testing regimen confirmed that the engines are equipped to support the safe and successful launch of astronauts to the Moon and beyond.

Mike Lauer emphasized the critical nature of these tests: "When we fly, we aim for perfection in engine performance. Our testing challenges the engines under extreme and varied conditions to ensure they can fulfill the mission requirements with safety margins."

In total, the RS-25 test program accumulated about 34,000 seconds of hot fire testing across the development, retrofit, and certification phases, showcasing the engines' readiness for their role in NASA's ambitious lunar exploration goals.

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