The long-awaited Space Shuttle replacement launch system was unveiled on the 14th September 2011 by US space agency NASA.
Florida senator Bill Nelson, himself a former Space Shuttle astronaut presented details in Washington DC, announcing that the new SLS (Space Launch System) will be "the most powerful rocket in history”. With an initial lifting capability aimed at 70,000 kilograms into LEO (low-Earth orbit) and a final target of 130,000 kilograms, the new launch system will allow NASA to once again launch massive payloads into space. By comparison, today’s most powerful launchers Europe’s Ariane 5 and NASA’s Delta IV Heavy can deliver just over 20,000 kilograms into LEO.
Unlike in the past where NASA has been accused of throwing away good tried technology, the new system builds on existing technology inherited from the Space Shuttle program. The initial design of the SLS calls for a main core section 65 metres tall with solid rocket boosters strapped to each side. Attached to the main section are five Shuttle orbiter’s engines. NASA states that the solid rocket boosters will also be taken from the Shuttle program, although later upgraded possibly to a liquid fuelled based system. Much of the external tank design would remain the same as the Shuttle's.
By using tried and tested technology, SLS benefits from reduce cost and development time allowing NASA to launch unmanned test flights as early as 2017. A later addition of an upper stage increases the height of the rocket to over 100 metres and allows it to reach its full launch capability. NASA intends its Orion astronaut capsule to sit atop the rocket and hence avoid the problems of falling debris during launch that plagued the Space Shuttle.
Potential destination and mission types both manned and unmanned are plentiful given such a powerful machine. Although NASA has yet to decide on a "roadmap" a return to the Moon and a manned mission to Mars are all within reach.
Bill Gerstenmaier, Nasa's Human exploration and operations associate administrator said "We've talked conceptually about multiple destinations. We need to get some more details on the actual rocket performance, put that together with these concepts and then start talking to people about specifics. We can do pretty exciting missions with the capability we've got, even in the 70-metric-tonne range."