Orion Spacecraft Launches

NASA Marks Milestone On ‘Journey To Mars’ SLS Engine Test

NASA’s Journey to Mars mission is the agency’s next step in deep space exploration, and a rocket engine that helped launch five space shuttle missions, including the penultimate flight of the program in 2011, was updated and test fired on March 10 in preparation for the first crewed flight beyond Earth’s orbit in more than 45 years, Scientific American reports. The Space Launch System (SLS) will use four RS-25 engines in its core and is designed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. The 8-minute rocket firing marked the first flight certification test of the SLS engine, which had been tested last year.

Check out video of the test below.

[RELATED: NASA Tests Next-Generation RS-25 Engine That Will Take Astronauts To Mars]

The space agency cleared a milestone last week when it successfully test fired the RS-25 rocket engine for a full 500 seconds. Space notes that the next time this particular engine, serial number 2059, fires for that length of time, it will be to launch astronauts for NASA’s Journey to Mars mission. The goals of the program were “outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.”

“What a great moment for NASA,” said Rick Gilbrech, the director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where Thursday’s test took place. “We have exciting days ahead with a return to deep space and a journey to Mars, and this test is a very big step in that direction.”

The engines NASA will use for the initial SLS missions are recycled from retired flights of the shuttle program and were used in 135 missions between 1981 and 2001. Aerojet Rocketdyne, the prime contractor for the RS-25 engine calls them “the world’s most reliable rocket booster engine.” In November of last year, he was awarded a $1.16 billion contract to restart the development of the RS-25 engine.

“It’s a great feeling that this engine — that has carried so many astronauts into space before — is being prepared to take astronauts to space once again on SLS’s first crewed flight,” stated Steve Wofford, engines manager at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, where the SLS program is managed.

Engineers and scientists around the country are developing the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, and return to Earth safely. NASA is also working with international partners on a collaborative effort to expand the human presence on the surface of Mars, and beyond. In addition to defining “a long-term human space exploration strategy which provides substantial benefits” for improving the quality of life on Earth. Last week’s test was to validate the updated engine’s capabilities and verify the various operating conditions needed for the SLS, per Tech Crunch.

“Not only does this test mark an important step towards proving our existing design for SLS’s first flight, but it’s also a great feeling that this engine that has carried so many astronauts into space before is being prepared to take astronauts to space once again on SLS’s first crewed flight.”

Back in 2004, more than 200,000 people signed up to be prospective astronauts in a Dutch company’s plan to colonize the Red Planet. The Mars One foundation intends to launch an unmanned mission in 2018 that will demonstrate technology needed to sustain permanent human settlement on Mars. If all goes well, the first pioneers could arrive in 2025. CNN notes that applicants are OK with remaining on Mars permanently, as Mars One is not developing technology for a return flight to Earth.

NASA will launch the first official uncrewed SLS flight in 2018, and if all goes well, the SLS will carry the Orion capsule with up to six crew members on board to deep space destinations outlined in the Journey to Mars mission – targeted for the 2021 to 2023 time frame, depending on available funding.

NASA's Mars Odyssey Spacecraft Nears 60,000th Lap Around Mars

[Image courtesy Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images]