NASA's monster rocket inches towards testing while India plots return to the Moon

Chandrayaan-3 to be a bit less crashy this time around

NASA is making preparations to ship the first core stage of its monstrous Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to a Stennis test stand ahead of firing it up.

It has been a long time coming, but engineers have deemed the core stage complete enough to be to rolled over to Building 110 at the agency's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for prepping to be sent on the Pegasus barge to Stennis Space Center. Once there, the stage will be hoisted onto the B-2 test stand, which saw action testing the first stage of the Saturn V rocket during the heyday of Apollo.

The Green Run test programme will progressively ramp up validation of the core stage's avionics and flight hardware, culminating in all four ex-Shuttle RS-25 engines running through the full launch cycle. NASA boasts that the four engines together will produce two million pounds of thrust, somewhat less than the five F1 engines of the Saturn V first stage, but at least those RS-25s are reusable.

Oh, wait. Part of the epic development cost of the SLS has been to transform the precious Space Shuttle Main Engines, transported to space and back in the rear of the agency's retired orbiters, into one-shot wonders to be deposited in the ocean following launch.

The thrust of the four engines will be augmented by two solid rocket boosters, which will not be attached during the Green Run testing.

The roll to Building 110 comes as NASA's goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 looms ever closer. While some within NASA still speak bravely of actually launching the first SLS this year, 2021 looks more likely at present. Should all go well, the second SLS will carry a crew around the Moon and the third will place those all important boots on the surface.

The move came as the chairman of India's space agency, Dr K Sivan, promised big things for the country's space programme following the loss of the Vikram lander portion of the Chandrayaan-2 mission.

The good news is that the country is going to have another crack at landing a rover on the Moon. This time without scattering the poor thing over the lunar surface.

Chandrayaan-3 will be composed of a propulsion module, lander and rover. An orbiter is presumably not required this time around since Chandrayaan-2's continues to perform admirably above the lunar surface. Dr Sivan described the mission as "in progress" with an ambitious schedule calling for a launch in 2020, although it may slip to 2021.

Thus far, only the US, Russia and China have managed a soft landing on the Moon, and India's attempt is intended to demonstrate the country's low-cost technical abilities, with the new equipment carrying a relatively modest $35m price tag. That figure will rise considerably when other costs, such as the launcher, are factored in.

Dr Sivan also gave an update on the country's human spaceflight programme, Gaganyaan, which aims to send a crew into orbit by 2022 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of India's independence. Noting that good progress had been made, Dr Sivan added that four more astronauts had been selected for training.

The Gaganyaan programme calls for two uncrewed launches to take place before the first crewed mission, with the first humans aboard 10 months after the first uncrewed flight. ®

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