Mars Ascent Vehicle, first tests on rocket engines

First tests have begun on the engines that will equip the Mars Ascent Vehicle as part of the Mars Sample Return mission
One of the rocket engines that is part of NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle development program being tested at the Northrop Grumman facility. Credit: NASA

NASA has begun testing rocket engines for the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). These tests are an integral part of the development of an ascent vehicle designed to launch samples from Mars. American agency and its contractors are developing the MAV for the NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission campaign. The goal? The MAV is designed to carry the collected samples from Mars into orbit above the Red Planet, where they will be captured by a spacecraft that will bring them back to Earth.

Explanatory video of the entire Mars Sample Return mission. Credit: NASA

Tests on the two engines

According to the plans, the MAV will be the first rocket to be launched from another planet. The project involves a two-stage vehicle with two solid rocket motors, SRM1 and SRM2. In recent months, both engine prototypes have been tested to evaluate their performance before building the actual engines intended for the Red Planet.

SRM2 was tested at the Northrop Grumman facility on March 29th. A recently released video footage shows the engine igniting while spinning at 200 revolutions per minute. The second stage will use spin stabilization to keep the launcher on target toward its correct orbit. SRM1 was tested on April 7th at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Both tests were conducted to assess the engine performance at minus 20 degrees Celsius to simulate conditions on Mars.

The SRM1 test revealed a cutting-edge ball nozzle with a supersonic split line. This will allow the engine to alter its thrust direction and control its flight. This new design was used because conventional gimbaled nozzles cannot handle the extreme cold present on Mars, stated the mission team members.

Biggest obstacle? Politics

“The tests on the Mars Ascent Vehicle engines demonstrate that our nation has the capability to develop a lightweight launch vehicle to reach Mars. It will also be robust enough to put a series of samples into orbit for return to Earth” said Benjamin Davis, MAV Propulsion Manager at NASA, in a statement.

“The hardware is telling us that our technology is ready to proceed with development”. MAV will land on Mars with the Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) near or in the Jezero crater. NASA’s Perseverance rover is already collecting Mars samples to be brought back to Earth.

However, the Mars Sample Return program faces a bigger challenge. The United States Senate has raised questions about expanding the mission’s budget. One of the most epic missions in human history is threatened by US Senate politicians who have no clue what analyzing those samples on Earth entails.

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