HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, deliberately pushed the world’s largest rocket fuel tank beyond its design limits to really understand its breaking point.
The 212-foot-tall core stage is the largest, most complex rocket stage NASA has built since the Saturn V stages that powered the Apollo missions to the Moon.
The test version of the Space Launch System rocket’s liquid hydrogen tank withstood more than 260% of expected flight loads over five hours before engineers detected a buckling point, which then ruptured.
“We purposely took this tank to its extreme limits and broke it because pushing systems to the point of failure gives us additional data to help us build rockets intelligently,” said Neil Otte, chief engineer of the SLS Stages Office at Marshall.
“We will be flying the Space Launch System for decades to come, and breaking the propellant tank today will help us safely and efficiently evolve the SLS rocket as our desired missions evolve.”
Success! Engineers @NASA_Marshall tested the @NASA_SLS liquid hydrogen test article tank to failure – the tank withstood more than 260% of expected flight loads before buckling and rupturing! #Artemis MORE: https://t.co/xznmov26FP pic.twitter.com/qAIyapEJA5
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) December 9, 2019
The test version of the tank aced earlier tests, withstanding forces expected at engine thrust levels planned for Artemis lunar missions, showing no signs of cracks, buckling or breaking.
Earlier tests at Marshall certified the tank for both the current version of the SLS — called Block 1, which will use an upper stage called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage — and the Block 1B version that will replace the ICPS with the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage.
“This final tank test marks the largest-ever controlled test-to-failure of a NASA rocket stage pressurized tank,” said Mike Nichols, Marshall’s lead test engineer for the tank. This data will benefit all aerospace companies designing rocket tanks.”
The test tank was fitted with thousands of sensors to measure stress, pressure and temperature, while high-speed cameras and microphones captured every moment to identify buckling or cracking in the cylindrical tank wall.
SLS is the only rocket that can send Orion, astronauts, and supplies to the Moon on a single mission.