New Moon Rocket Damaged in Test Flight, NASA Says
This underwater image shows a large dent in the lower segment of NASA's Ares I-X rocket after it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean to end a test flight on Oct. 28, 2009.
Credit: United Space Alliance.

NASA has discovered a large dent on its brand-new moon rocket after the booster splashed into the Atlantic Ocean at the end of a test flight this week.

The damage to the new Ares I-X rocket, which launched from Florida Wednesday on a short test flight, was spotted by a diving team sent to recover the booster?s first stage. The first stage ? a giant solid rocket booster ? was dented near its base.

NASA spokesperson Amber Philman told SPACE.com that the space agency is still awaiting word on what may have caused the damage.

Photos of the damage show a giant dent in one of the lower segments of the Ares I-X rocket?s first stage. The first stage is essentially a four-segment solid rocket booster like those used to launch NASA?s space shuttles, except with a dummy fifth segment on top.

Ares I-X launched on a $445 million test flight to aid development of NASA?s Ares I rocket, the booster slated to carry astronauts to space after the shuttle fleet is retired.

The rocket prototype blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a brief six-minute flight. About two minutes into the liftoff, the first stage separated from a dummy second stage made up of fake segments.

The dummy upper stage crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and sank as planned. The first stage, however, was expected to deploy three massive parachutes and splash into the ocean much like NASA?s shuttle boosters. One of the giant, 150-foot (46-meter) parachutes reportedly deflated as the first stage fell back to Earth, resulting in a harder-than-expected spashdown, according to a CBS News report.

The recovery team is due to return to the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, NASA officials said.

Space shuttle mission managers said the damage to Ares I-X?s first stage poses no concern for the twin solid rocket boosters on the shuttle Atlantis, which was cleared for a Nov. 16 launch on Thursday.

The Ares I-X booster is heavier than shuttle boosters and carried other modifications and a different parachute system, NASA?s space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters. Shuttle solid rocket boosters have only two parachutes, he added.

?It?s a totally different system than ours,? Gerstenmaier said. ?There?s been no tie at all between what Ares has got and what we?ve got.?

Shuttle officials said Ares I-X engineers will get their first up-close look at the damaged rocket booster Friday once it arrives in Florida.

?The booster comes back in tomorrow,? said shuttle integration manager Mike Moses. ?So until that point, everything is probably speculation.?

Click here for SPACE.com's full Ares I-X mission coverage.