In an off-beat look at off-world transport systems, E&T brings you its top ten space launch vehicles.
1. Saturn V
The mother of all heavy-lift launch vehicles which launched 13 times in the late 1960s and early 1970s without a failure. It delivered 12 astronauts, six lunar modules and three lunar rovers to the surface of the Moon and the Skylab space station to low Earth orbit – before being scrapped.
Three remaining flight models lie in state as tourist attractions at Nasa facilities, but the vehicle continues to inspire rocket designers and space mission planners who often pine for the capability offered by this historic heavy-lifter.
- Provider: Boeing, North American & Douglas for Nasa (USA)
- Launch site: Kennedy Space Center, Florida
- First launch: 1967
- Height: 100m
- Payload capability: 118 tonnes to low Earth orbit (LEO); 47t to trans-lunar injection
2. Soyuz/Fregat (Commercial)
The Soyuz family of launchers has been operational since 1966 and has made over 1,760 flights since then, some variants delivering first Soviet and now Russian cosmonauts into orbit. In its man-rated version, the Soyuz will provide the only access for crews to the International Space Station once the Space Shuttle retires.
In its commercial version, it delivers satellites to low and medium-altitude orbits using the Fregat upper stage and, with its introduction to French Guiana later this year, will become an integral part of the European fleet.
- Provider: Starsem (Russia & Europe)
- Launch site: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan/CSG, French Guiana
- First launch (for Starsem): 1999
- Height: 42.5m
- Payload capability: 7t to LEO
3. Long March 2F
The man-rated variant of the long-running Long March series used to launch China’s astronauts – or ‘taikonauts’ – to low Earth orbit. Other variants launch scientific payloads, and meteorological and communications satellites to a variety of orbital altitudes and inclinations.
In the 1990s, the Long March launched a number of foreign commercial satellites, but this profitable trade endeavour evaporated when America introduced its ITAR export regime, which prohibited US-made satellites, or even components, from being launched aboard Chinese rockets.
More recently, so-called ‘ITAR-free’ satellites made by a European manufacturer have flown aboard the Long March. The LM-2F is expected to launch further Taikonauts later this year for an orbital rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft as a demonstration of the nation’s capability to launch a small space station, which it plans for 2015.
- Provider: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (China)
- Launch site: Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, China
- First launch: 1999
- Height: 62m
- Payload capability: 8.4t to LEO
Definitely the wild card in this selection, the Pegasus is launched from beneath a converted Lockheed L-1011 airliner, which effectively acts as the ‘first stage’ of the launch system.
Although its payload capability is severely limited (by the ground clearance beneath the aircraft), it provides a flexible solution for the launch of small satellites as it can be operated from any suitable runway. Mind you, during tests of the converted L-1011 in Cambridgeshire, UK, it caused consternation among the locals: a woman phoned the police to say a plane carrying a huge bomb had just flown over her house...
- Provider: Orbital Sciences Corp (USA)
- Launch site: any suitable runway
- First launch: 1990
- Length: 17.6m
- Payload capability: 450kg to LEO
5. Ariane 5
The world’s leading commercial launch vehicle, Ariane 5 is the latest variant of a system born under the auspices of the European Space Agency in the 1970s. Europe’s launch base in French Guiana, operated by Arianespace, is the closest fixed launch site to the equator, making it well-suited to launching commercial communications satellites to the equatorial geostationary orbit. Ariane 5 will be joined in French Guiana later this year by the commercial version of the Soyuz and the new small-satellite launcher Vega, making Arianespace a one-stop-shop for payloads of all shapes and sizes.
- Provider: EADS Astrium for ESA/Arianespace (Europe)
- Launch site: Guiana Space Centre, French Guiana
- First launch: 1996
- Height: 50.5m
- Payload capability: 20t to LEO; 9.6t to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO)
6. Space Shuttle
Nasa’s 30-year-old launch system, which is due for retirement this year. Although the Shuttle – officially known as the Space Transportation System (STS) – is unique, its design was an engineering compromise born of US government parsimony.
Originally intended to comprise an orbiter and a manned reusable carrier vehicle (in effect a larger version of the existing Shuttle orbiter), the design was soon pared back and the carrier replaced by reusable solid rocket boosters and an expendable liquid propellant tank.
Five flight model orbiters were built and two of them – Challenger and Columbia – were destroyed in well-documented accidents (in 1986 and 2003, respectively). The Shuttle’s main claim to fame is its role in constructing the International Space Station, though many will remember its missions to launch, mend and service the Hubble Space Telescope.
- Provider: Thiokol (SRBs), Martin Marietta (ET) & Rockwell International (Orbiter) for Nasa (USA)
- Launch site: Kennedy Space Center, Florida
- First launch: 1981
- Height: 56m
- Payload capability: 24t to LEO
7. Zenit 3SL (Sea Launch)
This vehicle is unique in being launched from a sea-going platform, stationed temporarily at the equator. The philosophy behind this novel business plan was that an equatorial launch would eliminate the plane-change required to place communications satellites, launched from non-equatorial sites, into geostationary orbit, thereby increasing the effective payload capability.
The multinational company – using an existing Russian/Ukrainian rocket, American flight hardware, a converted oil-rig platform and a homeport in Los Angeles – found it difficult to make a profit and has recently passed, via bankruptcy, into majority-Russian ownership. The same company operates the Zenit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome under the ‘Land Launch’ moniker – hedging its bets, perhaps?
- Provider: Sea Launch/Energia (Russia & US)
- Launch site: Equatorial Pacific Ocean
- First launch (for SL): 1999
- Height: 60m
- Payload capability: 6t to GTO
8. Falcon 9
The Falcon is the first commercial launch vehicle to emerge from one of the so-called ‘newspace’ companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). The Falcon 9 is capable of launching SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. Dragon is designed to deliver supplies, and later crews, to the ISS, but the Falcon is expected to revolutionise the commercial satellite launch market because of its competitive pricing. Launching payloads into space is expensive, but SpaceX hopes to combine reliability and affordability into a single package.
- Provider: SpaceX (USA)
- Launch site: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station LC40
- First launch: 2010
- Height: 55m
- Payload capability: 10.4t to LEO; 4.5t to GTO
9. Delta IV Heavy
In the space launch business, it seems that once a name exists, operators are reluctant to relinquish it: the first Delta was launched way back in 1960. Of course, it bore little relationship to the current Delta IV Heavy, which is one of several variants. The Delta IV was developed in partnership with the US Air Force under its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) programme to ensure reliable access to space for military satellite payloads. The Delta IV can now be launched from both the east and west coasts, into equatorial and polar orbits.
- Provider: United Launch Alliance (USA)
- Launch site: Cape Canaveral, Florida/Vandenberg AFB, California
- First launch: 2004
- Height: 70m
- Payload capability: 22.5t to LEO; 13t to GTO
The heritage of this Russian vehicle made it an obvious choice for commercialisation when the US and Russia formed the joint operating company ILS in 1995. The ILS Proton’s early operations, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, were complicated by the fact that this Russian-built rocket had to be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan which required an international lease arrangement.
Provider: Khrunichev for International Launch Services (US/Russia)
- Launch site: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
- First launch (for ILS): 1996
- Height: 58.2m
- Payload capability: 21t to LEO; 6.3t to GTO