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Atlas launches Superbird
The Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket launches the Japanese Superbird 6 communications spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida. (3min 09sec file)
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Lion King panorama
The stunning "Lion King" high-resolution color panorama from the Opportunity rover shows the vast landing site. Expert narration by Jason Soderblom, science team collaborator. (2min 12sec file)
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Changing NASA's culture
Administrator Sean O'Keefe holds a discussion with agency workers around the country about organizational culture change at NASA. (56min 12sec file)
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Yuri Gagarin
Historical footage documents the flight of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. (2min 25sec file)
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Cosmonautics Day
Expedition 8 crewmembers Michael Foale and Alexander Kaleri celebrate Cosmonautics Day aboard the International Space Station. (3min 07sec file)
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Mars rover briefing
Officials discuss the extended missions for the Mars rovers and present the latest pictures at this briefing from Thursday, April 8. (34min 10sec file)
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Gravity Probe-B preview
Scientists and mission officials preview the Gravity Probe-B project in this pre-flight news briefing from Friday, April 2. (62min 25sec file)
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NEW! X-43A in infrared
This newly-released infrared video, captured by a U.S. Army aircraft tracking the launch, shows the X-43A research vehicle flying away from its Pegasus rocket booster.
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NEW! Aboard Pegasus
A camera mounted on the Pegasus rocket booster shows the X-43A research vehicle separating to perform its scramjet experiment over the Pacific Ocean.
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This date in history
On April 5, 1991, space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center carrying the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory -- NASA's second Great Observatory. (3min 15sec file)
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First aerospike engine flight test successful
Posted: April 19, 2004

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC), and Blacksky Corporation joined forces on the prairie lands of West Texas recently to fly small aerospike rocket nozzles.

The effort, called the Dryden Aerospike Rocket Test, yielded big returns, providing the first known data from a solid-fueled aerospike rocket in flight.

The aerospike rocket is launched. Photo: NASA
Two 10-ft. long solid-fueled rockets with aerospike nozzles were flown successfully on two consecutive flights March 30 and 31, 2004. Under perfect skies and calm winds, the rockets ascended from the King Ranch launch site at the Pecos County Aerospace Development Corporation Flight Test Range in Fort Stockton, Texas.

"The success of the Dryden Aerospike Rocket Test project opens up a whole new way of obtaining flight research data for not only the aerospike nozzles but for other rocket technologies as well, such as dual-bell nozzles," said NASA Dryden's Trong Bui, the project's principal investigator. "This inexpensive, high-speed flight research platform allows us to take new ideas to flight quickly and at the same time, increases the technology readiness level of new aerospace concepts," Bui said.

Aerospike nozzles can be thought of as inside-out rocket nozzles. Rather than the rocket engine's exhaust plume exiting out the traditional bell-shaped nozzle, the plume travels externally. The main advantage of aerospike nozzles is that, as the rocket climbs, atmospheric and airstream pressure act on the plume to keep it at an optimum setting along the entire trajectory. This allows very efficient engine performance in flight. With traditional rocket engines, the bell nozzle is most efficient at only one point in the rocket's trajectory.

Although the advantages of the aerospike nozzles are well understood through analysis and ground test data, the lack of actual flight test data has precluded use of these nozzles in current as well as next generation space launch vehicles. In addition, the configuration of an aerospike nozzle presents unique challenges to the designer and fabricator.

The rockets reached supersonic speeds in excess of Mach 1.5 and peak altitudes of over 26,000 ft. However, speed and altitude weren't the project's aim. The goals of this flight research project were to obtain aerospike rocket nozzle performance data in flight and to investigate the effects of transonic flow and transient rocket flight conditions on aerospike nozzle performance.

"The successful planning and integration of the Dryden Aerospike Rocket Test project clearly demonstrates the capability of the low-cost technology approach used," said Scott Bartel of Blacksky Corp., of Carlsbad, Calif., which built the rockets. "The flight operations support from the Tripoli Rocketry Association and Fort Stockton shows that enthusiasm for aerospace research is universal," Bartel said.

Close-up view of the aerospike rocket nozzle. Photo: NASA
Blacksky Corp. coordinated development of the experimental aerospike nozzles and solid propellant motors used in the tests with Cesaroni Technology Inc., of Ontario, Canada. Cesaroni provided key support to the project with the rapid design and development of both aerospike nozzles, as well as the custom solid propellant rocket motors. The configuration of these aerospike nozzles presented unique design and fabrication challenges for Cesaroni.

"For many years NASA Dryden has built small radio controlled and remotely-piloted research models flown at subsonic speeds to explore new concepts such as lifting bodies, parafoil landing systems, and the testing of hypersonic shapes for landing feasibility," said Chuck Rogers, AFFTC project investigator. "With the demonstration of this rocket flight test technique these models can now be tested at transonic and supersonic flight conditions at very low cost," Rogers said.

"We are very excited to have been part of the Dryden Aerospike Rocket Test, and hope that the data collected during the flights at the Pecos County Aerospace Development Center will further the development of the aerospike rocket motor," said George Riggs, president of the Pecos County/West Texas Aerospace Development Corp. "Pecos County looks forward to continued relations with NASA Dryden, Blacksky Corp. and Cesaroni Technology Inc. as the aerospike project moves forward," Riggs said.

NASA Dryden funded the project and instrumented the rockets. Dryden, together with the AFFTC, developed the project's flight test concept, worked the conceptual design of the aerospikes, and are analyzing the flight data. NASA Dryden and the AFFTC are co-located on Edwards AFB, Calif.