The forward skirt extension of the next-generation Ares I-X rocket passed a separation test, NASA announced.

Alliant Techsystems Inc. [ATK] conducted the test at its Promontory, Utah, facilities.

The rocket will become the lifter for the new Orion space capsule (crew exploration vehicle) that will thunder off on its first crewed flight in 2015.

Ares I-X will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida this year. The rocket will climb to an altitude of about 25 miles during a two-minute powered flight. The launch will culminate with a test of the separation of the first stage from the rocket and deployment of the accompanying parachute system that will return the first stage to Earth for data and hardware recovery.

The latest test simulated the separation that will occur following the first stage flight of Ares I-X. During the Ares I-X flight, the booster will separate at the frustum, a cone-shaped piece that attaches the first stage to the larger diameter upper stage.

"The Ares I-X team is pleased with the completion of this key test that will provide important data leading up to the launch of the Ares I-X flight," said Steve Davis, deputy mission manager for the Ares I-X test flight at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

At an altitude of about 15,000 feet, the nose cone will be jettisoned, deploying the pilot parachute. The pilot chute will, in turn, deploy the drogue parachute, which will re- orient the booster vertically and slow it to acceptable conditions for main parachute deployment. At about 4,000 feet, the separation at the base of the forward skirt extension occurs, pulling out the three main chutes packed inside.

The test showed that the linear shaped charge — used to separate the forward skirt extension — severed cleanly. As well, the test measured the shock created by that charge. NASA will use the data to analyze the system and prepare for the Ares I-X flight test and development of the Ares I rocket.

The forward skirt extension is built to withstand the loads of the first stage and support the weight of the upper stage. The component is built as one solid piece of aluminum forged into a 6-foot-long by 12-foot-diameter cylinder with a unique internal support structure that houses three newly-designed main parachutes. Its state-of-the-art design will withstand the force imparted at main chute deployment.

"This was an important milestone for the program, as it validates key parameters to support the upcoming Ares I-X flight test," said Mike Kahn, executive vice president of ATK Space Systems. "The program is one step closer to the flight test of Ares I-X."

To view pictures of the separation test, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/constellation/multimedia/fses_test.html