Washington: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced to launch its $7 billion Space Launch System (SLS) - the heavy-lift, exploration class rocket under development to take humans beyond earth and eventually to Mars - by November 2018.
NASA officials approved the programme's progression from formulation to development, something no other exploration class vehicle has achieved since the agency built the space shuttle.
“We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars. We are firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
For its first flight test, SLS will be configured for a 77-tonne lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-earth orbit.
In its most powerful configuration, SLS will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 143 tonnes which will enable missions even farther into our solar system, including such destinations as an asteroid and the Red Planet.
“After rigorous review, we are committing to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s - and we are going to stand behind that commitment,” added associate administrator Robert Lightfoot from NASA.
The programme delivered the first piece of flight hardware in April this year for Orion's maiden flight - Exploration Flight Test-1 targeted for December.
This stage adapter is of the same design that will be used on SLS's first flight, Exploration Mission-1.
SLS will be the world's most capable rocket.
In addition to opening new frontiers for explorers travelling aboard the Orion capsule, the SLS may also offer benefits for science missions that require its use and can't be flown on commercial rockets, NASA said in a press release.