NASA Performed a Science Experiment by Tearing Apart its Rocket Fuel Tank

NASA can sometimes behave like a “crazy-scientist!” by blowing up a rocket or tearing a fuel tank.

Such was the case on December, 5, when engineers put a replica of NASA’s Space Launch System liquid hydrogen tank, the world’s largest fuel tank, through a brutal pressure test to see how much stress it could handle that ‘literally’ blew it apart.

The Testing

Generally, a ‘rocketeer’ doesn’t want the rocket fuel tanks to rupture because that probably means destruction. The fuel is supposed to stay inside where it can burn in a controlled manner upon leaving the rocket. However, when you’re testing a new design the ‘no-rupture’ rule can be bypassed. NASA is developing the long-delayed Space Launch System (SLS). The agency’s latest video shows the vehicle’s main fuel tank blow wide open.

The latest round of testing was conducted by NASA on the SLS at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. It is assumed that on its completion, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket in the world, which implies it has to carry a lot of fuel. The large orange tank will carry liquid hydrogen fuel during missions. However, it was not holding any fuel during the test. Instead, NASA used large hydraulic pistons on the 215-foot test stand to perform all kinds of stress and strain tests such as to compress, twist, and bend the tank until it breaks. The goal was to demonstrate that it can survive forces even greater than it will experience during flight.

This tank was specially integrated with a series of sensors to record exactly how it failed, but it was otherwise identical to the tanks that will fly on the SLS. NASA also used ultra-sensitive microphones and high-speed cameras to record the final moments of the tank. NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, posted the video on Twitter, showing the tank blow apart astoundingly.

NASA reported that the tank tolerated 260% of the expected flight load during the test. That’s within 3% of the tank’s expected failure point. There was no premature buckling or cracking in the walls as the pressure increased exponentially, meaning the tank design will perform as expected in the SLS.

A pair of giant solid rocket boosters will be added to the SLS in addition to the liquid fuel engines, aiding it to get off the ground. This assembly will generate enough power to heave large payloads into space and will help in manned missions to the moon and Mars. NASA expects to conduct a crew-less flight of the SLS and Orion capsule (Artemis 1) at the end of 2020. The Orion spacecraft will orbit the moon and return to the Earth. The SLS will carry its first human passengers into space in 2022 or 2023.

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