A giant next generation space rocket shot off its launchpad at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, in US, for its very first test flight on Wednesday.
The 100-metre tall Ares I-X rocket sped into the sky over the Florida coast, trailing a plume of flames and steam in a trial that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hoped would provide crucial information about technology that is to replace the ageing space shuttle fleet.
It carried a simulated crew module that separated from the rocket at about 40 km above the Atlantic Ocean, before falling back to earth on a parachute.
The rocket continued soaring to 46 km high into the atmosphere on its 369-second flight, touching down some 240 km away on a recovery parachute outfitted with sensors, which will also help scientists collect data about its performance.
The Ares I is the first of two new rockets planned by NASA for its Constellation programme with the eventual goal of returning humans to the moon and travelling to Mars.
It will carry the crew on top of the rocket in a configuration that mirrors the Apollo moon missions and which engineers say is safer than the space shuttle design, following the explosion of the Columbia in 2003.
“We completely met our success criteria, in fact we blew them away,” said Mission Manager, Robert Ess.
Wednesday’s effort was the first of three test flights for the new space programme, with the next set for 2014.
The test came after several weather delays that had pushed back the launch from its initial schedule on Tuesday. The main concern for NASA was cloud cover over the launchpad that could have caused what scientists dub triboelectrification - essentially potential static generated by flying through clouds - that could have caused communication devices on the craft to malfunction.
Ares I would be used to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit, including to the International Space Station, aboard the next-generation Orion crew capsule. A later, more powerful Ares V rocket is to be developed to carry astronauts to the moon and beyond.
NASA put hundreds of sensors on the rocket to gather information during the $445-million test flight about how safe and effective the rocket is. The test simulated the path that an Ares rocket carrying an Orion crew capsule would take and reached up to four-times the speed of sound. In addition to the mock-up of the Orion capsule, it carried an extra rocket booster to simulate as closely as possible actual conditions.
All the sensors to gather data worked correctly and NASA was to begin looking at the information, Ess said.
Engineers will use the test to assess the flight control system and to control for roll torque, the force that causes a rocket to rotate as it flies. NASA will also be looking closely at the separation of the rocket and the recovery system.
But the programme itself and Ares could be in jeopardy as US President, Barack Obama, reviews the US space programme. An independent review commission said earlier this month that NASA would not be ready to send astronauts aloft with the rockets until at least 2017, two years after schedule.
That widens the gap between the retirement of the shuttle next year and implementation of the new vehicle, leaving astronauts dependent on Russian spacecraft to reach the International Space Station.
The review panel also suggested that policy makers should consider using commercial vehicles to carry humans to low-Earth orbit rather than Ares I, allowing NASA to focus its attention on longer trips. But NASA scientists said regardless of the policy decision, the Ares test would allow them to gather valuable data applicable to any high-powered rocket to move the space programme forward.
NASA officials said they were still evaluating the report and its potential impact on the Ares development.