Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RS-25 rocket engine controller and flight configuration software passed the first hot fire engine test with flying colors this week at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

The RS-25 engine will propel NASA’s new heavy-lift launch vehicle, called the Space Launch System (SLS), into space. The test this week was the first time the RS-25 engine and its controller were tested together.

The RS-25 engine was formerly used as the main engine for the Space Shuttle launch vehicles. Aerojet Rocketdyne has made a number of tweaks to the engine, namely around delivering higher thrust levels, in order to support the heavy lift launcher, and has taken advantage of improved manufacturing efficiencies to help bring down the cost of building the rocket engines. The company claims it’s “dramatically” simplified the design of the engine while making it more powerful and flexible for future mission needs. Kathryn Crowe, RS-25 propulsion engineer at NASA, describes the RS-25 as “the Ferrari of rocket engines.”

The new RS-25 engine controller — considered the brain of the engine — is more advanced than the controllers used on the Space Shuttle vehicles. The new controller, which controls key elements of the rocket engine, is able to monitor the operating health of the engine and make real-time adjustments to engine action in response to things like combustion pressures and thrust. The new version has over 20 times the processing power of the Space Shuttle-era controllers, and it’s about 50 pounds lighter, too.

Image source: NASA

“Just think about all the advances in computing technology and electronics that have occurred over the recent years, we’ve been able to include those advances into the controller,” said Dan Adamski, RS-25 program director at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “We’ve been able to increase the processing speed, add memory and greatly improve the reliability of the entire controller communication network.”

The controller was installed on a model of the RS-25 engine for a performance test this week. Now that it has passed the test, Aerojet Rocketdyne will install the new controllers onto one of the flight engines. The SLS will use four RS-25 engines as part of its core stage. All together, those four engines will deliver 2 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is paying special precaution for all components of the RS-25 engine as part of the SLS. The SLS is expected to first launch an unmanned crew capsule for a mission around the moon 2018. Once completed, the SLS will be the world’s more powerful launch vehicle, providing lift capability of 130 metric tonnes.

“Because humans will fly on SLS to deep space and the surface of Mars, it is imperative that we make our engines and the rocket as reliable and safe as possible,” said Eileen Drake, Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and president. “Upgrading the controller and testing it out on a development engine is a crucial way to ensure safety.”

Watch NASA’s test fire of the RS-25 engine in 2016:

Kendra R Chamberlain
Editor and analyst at The Enterprise Orbit, covering new space business and technology developments; freelance journalist covering telecom, renewable energy technology & smart infrastructure.

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