A booster rocket intended for America's journey to Mars around 2030 has been test-fired successfully in Utah, according to NASA. Data gained will be used to prepare the launch of an unmanned test flight in 2018.
The US space agency said Tuesday its rocket firing to check its propellant behavior in cool conditions had demonstrated "real progress" toward developing its new Space Launch System (SLS) for deep space missions.
Tuesday's firing was the "final qualification test" for the booster, NASA said.
The booster was ignited lying on its side with the ambient ground temperatures at 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celcius) at the Utah facility of Orbital ATK, a NASA contractor.
A similar test in March last year began at 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 Celsius) and delivered "acceptable performance," said NASA Tuesday, recapping its evaluation series.
Test flight due in 2018
SLS program manager John Honeycutt said hardware for the booster was "currently in production for every part of the rocket."
"NASA is also making progress every day on Orion and the ground systems to support a launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida," he said.
The first uncrewed test flight of the SLS coupled to NASA's new Orion spacecraft is due in late 2018 and will send the vehicle in the vicinity of the moon.
NASA plans a first manned Orion flight by 2023. A first trip to Mars is scheduled for the 2030s.
Tons per second
When upright, each SLS booster rocket stands at 54 meters and burns 5.5 tons of propellant per second.
Two boosters coupled with four main engines are to be fitted to NASA's Orion. The boosters will burn for the first two minutes of flight, generating more than 75 percent of the thrust so the Orion can escape Earth's gravitational pull.
The initial configuration should be able to lift 70 metric tons. For more ambitious missions, a 105-ton lift capacity is planned.
Last Friday, a rocket of the Atlas series lifted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, putting a US Navy communications satellite into orbit.
Atlas' maker United Launch Alliance had grounded its fleet in March because of a fuel-valve problem during a cargo delivery flight to the ISS space station.
Crops grow on Mars-like soil
Dutch scientists said last week that that soil similar to that expected to be encountered on Mars had produced abundant crops of radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes.