Spaceflight Insider

Orbital ATK completes QM-2 installation ahead of critical test

QM-2 motor in test stand in Promontory, Utah in preparation for June 28, 2016 test. NASA Orbital ATK photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA and Orbital ATK are planning to test out one of the five-segment solid rocket motors that will be used on NASA’s massive Space Launch System super-heavy-lift rocket. Photo Credit: Orbital ATK / NASA

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) took another step forward as a new five-segment booster motor was installed onto its custom test stand in Promontory, Utah. Orbital ATK, in partnership with NASA, completed the installation of the QM-2 and is now working toward the countdown to a June 28, 2016, static-fire test of the new motor. This is the second test of the new motor design and is viewed as a critical part of the design qualification process.

NASA Space Launch System SLS Orion Marshall Space Flight Center Boeing Orbital ATK Lockheed Martin NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA hopes to conduct the first uncrewed flight of SLS as early as 2018. Image Credit: NASA

The first motor test, QM-1, was successfully carried out around the same stand last year (2015). The Orbital ATK motors are a critical component of the super-heavy-lift rocket that NASA will need if it is to send astronauts to deep space destinations such as an asteroid or the planet Mars.

“Testing before flight is critical to ensure reliability and safety when launching humans into space,” said Charlie Precourt, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Propulsion Systems Division. “This ground test is an important step in qualifying NASA’s new five-segment solid rocket motor, the largest solid rocket motor ever built for flight, for planned SLS missions to deep space.”

The QM-2 test will validate engine performance at the lower end of the temperature range with the motor being cooled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 °C) before ignition.

While the concept of temperature testing was a key aspect of the earlier QM-1 test, it was carried out at the high end of the spectrum. The motors are not expected to perform in sub-freezing temperatures, so testing below 40 °F is not deemed as being necessary.

For the QM-2 test, the motor will be securely fastened to the test stand. During the test, it is expected that a maximum of more than 3.6 million pound-force (16 MN) of thrust will be generated by the motor. The five-segment booster stands more than 154 feet in height (47 m) and measures about 12 feet (4 m) in diameter.

Performance testing helps develop more reliable and safer solid rocket motors which NASA hopes to put to use in as little as two years.

During the motor’s expected burn cycle, ATK and NASA will monitor its performance using measurements from more than 530 sensors. After the test has been completed, both groups will evaluate the results by looking at a large number of parameters which will include acoustics, motor vibrations, nozzle modifications, insulation upgrades, Booster Separation Motor structural dynamic response, and nozzle vectoring parameters.

NASA and Orbital ATK are planning to test out one of the five-segment solid rocket motors that will be used on NASA's massive Space Launch System super heavy-lift rocket. Photo Credit: Orbital ATK / NASA

The QM-2 test will work to validate the five-segment design in the lower end of the temperature spectrum, with the rocket being chilled to 40°F (4.4°C) before it is ignited. Photo Credit: NASA / Orbital ATK

The five-segment booster motor that will be used on the first flights of SLS is based on legacy hardware from NASA’s Space Shuttle systems. In addition to adding a fifth motor segment, the motor incorporates newer technologies.

As one might imagine, construction materials for the booster have been updated to take advantage of the latest engineering developments. The new motors produce 20 percent more thrust than those that were employed during the 30 years that NASA’s fleet of shuttle orbiters took to the skies of Florida.

“Throughout the Space Shuttle Program, we regularly monitored and enhanced our motor design, and we have made further modifications to our booster for NASA’s new SLS,” said Precourt, a four-time space shuttle astronaut and former chief of the astronaut office. “Having personally experienced the power of these motors and been a part of these modifications, I can attest to their reliability.”

The SLS, along with NASA’s Orion spacecraft, is designed to provide a flexible deep space exploration platform from which to send humans and cargo to multiple destinations across the Solar System.

Exploration Mission-1, currently scheduled to launch in late 2018, will be the first test flight of the combined Orion and SLS systems. EM-1 will use two of the solid rocket boosters that are set to be tested this summer.

As engine development has continued, progress on Orion has been moving forward. In December 2014, an Orion test article was successfully sent aloft atop a United Launch Alliance  Delta IV Heavy rocket. That mission sent an Orion capsule more than 3,600 miles (5,800 km) from Earth, orbiting twice before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The flight was more than 15 times farther than the International Space Station (ISS) orbits (approximately 260 miles above our world). It is also the furthest that a human spacecraft has traveled in more than 40 years.

To bring the SLS to life requires a massive workforce. Hundreds of suppliers and contractors scattered around the country have worked on the various components of the new launch system to get it ready for flight. Forty-nine states are active in SLS development. For example, Orbital ATK has 29 suppliers for the SLS booster motor alone. Those suppliers hail from 16 states including Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Orbital ATK recently completed the casting of the ten booster propellant segments that will be used in the 2018 EM-1 launch. Each of these segments contains more than 280,000 pounds (127,000 kg) of propellant which will take more than four days to cure to a usable state.

Once finished, they will be shipped to the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for assembly and additional testing. Other SLS components of the EM-1 vehicle are being constructed at the Michoud facility in Louisiana and around the country. The Orion capsule is undergoing pressure testing at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building also located at KSC in preparation for electronics assembly. Final vehicle assembly and testing should occur in late 2017 or early 2018.

“We are proud to be a part of NASA’s Space Launch System – the only launch vehicle with [the] capability to take humans farther into space than we’ve ever gone before,” Precourt told SpaceFlight Insider. “We currently have flight hardware in production for EM-1 and it’s exciting to be drawing ever closer to its 2018 launch.”


Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

Reader Comments

Capt'N Marvelous

…”The motors are not expected to perform in sub-freezing temperatures so testing below 40 °F is not deemed as being necessary”….

I have a one word comment….


Challenger was launched when temperatures were about 30 °F. There are currently no plans to launch SLS at temps of even 40 °F which this test will check out the booster’s design at.

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