WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman test-fired a new solid rocket motor that marks the beginning of an annual test campaign to demonstrate advanced technologies that could be incorporated into space and defense programs.

The company conducted a static fire of the motor Dec. 7 at its Promontory, Utah, facility. The motor fired for about half a minute in the test, which Northrop declared to be a success.

The test is the first of a new company initiative called Solid Motor Annual Rocket Technology Demonstrator, or SMART Demo. The goal of the program is to be able to rapidly develop and demonstrate new technologies that can support a range of programs.

“In less than one year, this team designed, developed and are qualifying these new technologies,” Wendy Williams, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, in a call with reporters shortly before the test.

The motor incorporates several new technologies, explained Ben Case, principal investigator for SMART Demo at Northrop. They include a new low-cost propellant able to operate across a wide range of temperatures as well as several components that were additively manufactured, such as a titanium structure in the nozzle. Using additive manufacturing, he said, can reduce lead times for those components by up to 75%.

Northrop also used the test to qualify materials in the nozzle from alternative suppliers. “These alternate suppliers stand to augment our supply chain,” he said, “and that will help to meet the demand of our growing business.”

That growing business includes ramping up production of the GEM 63XL solid rocket motor that will be used by United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket. Northrop also produces the large solid rocket motors for NASA’s Space Launch System and is starting work with NASA on the Booster Obsolescence and Life Extension (BOLE) program to develop new solid rocket boosters for SLS starting with Artemis 9 in the 2030s.

Williams noted the company is working on nine new solid rocket motors for five programs concurrently that includes both space launch applications as well as defense efforts such as hypersonics, missile defense and the Sentinel ICBM. The company is constructing 11 new buildings and modifying another 16 at its Utah facilities to accommodate “significantly” increased motor production rates.

Northrop Grumman conducted the SMART Demo test at its Promontory, Utah, facility Dec. 7. Credit: Northrop Grumman

The technologies demonstrated in the SMART Demo test could be incorporated into those programs, although company officials did not give a firm timeline for doing so. “All of our development programs are in different stages,” Williams said. “We are absolutely looking at leveraging these technologies and folding those in.”

“We have interest from program managers and chief engineers across multiple programs,” said Case of the SMART Demo technologies.

Aaron Shephard, internal research and development manager for propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, noted the company has long developed new technologies for solid rocket motors. “What’s really new here is the way we’re doing SMART Demo,” he said. It provides what he described as a “unique and powerful bridge” to mature new technologies over the “valley of death” that stymies development because of a lack of opportunities to qualify them.

This test is the start of what Northrop plans to be an annual series of demonstrations of solid rocket motor technologies. This test was internally funded, Case said, but future iterations could involve partnerships with government agencies to test technologies of interest to them.

Northrop is working to identify the technologies it wants to incorporate into next year’s Smart DEMO effort, which will be based in part on the data from this test as well as the experience in the development leading up to the test. “You’ll see some repeat of those technologies but in a more advanced state,” he said, along with new ones.

The motor itself could evolve into a product, Shephard said. “Our hope is that, as our configuration can adapt and change year in and year out, that is an attractive offer to industry,” he said. “Here is a vehicle with a given performance, given technology, that if, there’s interest, could roll into a real program.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...