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NASA’s Artemis moon rocket blasted out jumbo clouds. What’s in them?

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As NASA’s moon rocket ignited in darkness, it triggered an avalanche of snowy white clouds across the launch pad.

The plumes billowed, clinging to the air lengthy after the spacecraft vanished out of sight, like a magician’s smoke bomb dashed in opposition to the stage for a disappearing act.

However to name these mysterious clouds “smoke” can be a little bit of a misnomer, mentioned Nate Perkins, an engineer at Aerojet Rocketdyne, which constructed the propulsion system mounted to the underside of the rocket. A lot of the plumes come from the 4 foremost engines, which do not kick out soot or carbon.

They’re simply the results of a chemical course of that happens when liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen warmth, meet, and explode. Keep in mind from grade-school science class what occurs while you mix oxygen with a few hydrogen atoms?

“You get steam. It is simply water — water vapor,” Perkins informed Mashable. “That is all of the byproducts of the RS-25 engines, and that is nearly all of what you see.”

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The Area Launch System, usually referred to today as NASA’s mega moon rocket, is essentially the most highly effective rocket ever constructed. Its 4 foremost engines, the identical as these utilized by the legendary Area Shuttle, eat 700,000 gallons of super-cold propellant. These engines, mixed with two facet boosters, may hold eight Boeing 747s aloft.

Liquid hydrogen has been NASA’s gas of alternative for many years as a result of it has the bottom molecular weight in existence. That is ultimate for touring to house. The heavier the load, the extra thrust a spacecraft requires to flee Earth’s gravity. Hydrogen additionally burns with excessive ferocity.

When NASA crammed the rocket with gas earlier than launch, the liquid oxygen and hydrogen had been saved separate throughout the tank. On the final second, the 2 components combined, inflicting a managed explosion that hurled the spacecraft skyward.

The mega moon rocket has 4 highly effective RS-25 foremost engines.
Credit score: NASA / Eric Bordelon

SLS lifting off for Artemis I

NASA’s mega moon rocket blasts off for the primary time on Nov. 16, 2022.
Credit score: NASA / Joel Kowsky

The clouds are much like what folks see when an airplane streaks throughout the sky. Right here, the rocket engines dump out steam at 13 occasions the pace of sound — quick sufficient to journey from New York to L.A. in quarter-hour — which condenses and hovers within the air like fog.

However there are different engines on this rocket. The strong rocket boosters, which produce their share of water vapor, additionally discharge carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, and nitrogen, amongst different gases. Tiny aluminum oxide particles and hydrochloric acid are additionally of their plumes and might appear to be a white vapor, mentioned Kendra Kastelan, a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman, in an e mail. A lot much less of the rocket’s huffing and puffing comes from these facet boosters, which hearth for 2 minutes, in comparison with the eight-minute romp from the 4 foremost engines.

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Water spraying at NASA launch pad

A water suppression system on the rocket’s Kennedy Area Middle launch pad sprays lots of of hundreds of gallons of water.
Credit score: NASA / Kim Shiflett

Clouds additionally type from the lots of of hundreds of gallons of water evaporating from the water spray system on the launch pad. The flood is meant to suppress the intense warmth that occurs throughout ignition and liftoff.

Water retains flames from spreading, but it surely serves one other necessary function: stopping harm from loud noise. With out that gush, sound waves may burst pipes, crack partitions, and even break elements of the rocket.

Rocket engine testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi

Generally water vapor condenses round an engine testing website, inflicting localized rain.
Credit score: NASA

Relying on the situations of the ambiance, all that condensed vapor can create its personal climate. Engineers see this occur throughout exams of the huge engines. ‘

“You get all that exhaust, the steam popping out,” Perkins mentioned. “You find yourself getting some localized rain and mist within the space.”

And when it pours, they’ve a reputation for it: rocket rain.

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