Rise of the Mega Rockets: Comparing Heavy Lift Launch Systems

An Ariane 5 heads spaceward. Credit: Ariane.tv screenshot.

A new generation of space rockets ready to lift new and exciting payloads spaceward is coming to a sky near you.

Tomorrow, a Delta IV Heavy rocket will boost the Orion space capsule on a two orbit journey around the Earth that will test key systems. And though tomorrow’s launch is uncrewed, the Orion Command Module will one day form the core of NASA’s Orion MPCV Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and is slated to care out humanity’s first mission to an asteroid and beyond in the next decade.

But a second, lesser known launch also leaves Earth tomorrow as well, atop a rocket that will soon give way to a new generation of lift boosters as launch services vie for new customers. Just over eight hours after the launch of EFT-1, an Ariane 5 rocket lifts off from French Guiana with GSAT-16.

Credit Jason Major.
The EFT-1 Delta IV Heavy posed for roll out. Credit: Jason Major. @JPMajor

Is the ‘battle of the boosters’ heating up?

This comes after the December 2nd announcement earlier this week by participating members of the European Space Agency to proceed with the development of the next generation Ariane 6 rocket. Also included in the 5.9 billion Euro (7.3 billion USD) budget proposal  is funding for the 2018 ExoMars mission, along with further support of ESA’s International Space Station commitments.

To date, ESA has fielded five of its Automated Transfer cargo Vehicles (ATVs) on missions to the International Space Station. ESA will also design the Service Module segment of the Orion MPCV.

“I can summarize this ministerial council by say it was a success… I’d even go so far as to say that it is a great success,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, the director-general of the European Space Agency.

The Ariane 6 is expected to be on the launch pad by 2020, and will feature two variants capable of placing 5 to 11 tonnes in a geostationary transfer orbit. The solid fuel booster to be incorporated will be based on the Vega rocket design, while the upper stage Vinci engine is already currently in development.

Ariane 6. Credit Wikimedia Commons, SkywalkerPL.
A look at the Ariane 6 rocket. Credit Wikimedia Commons, SkywalkerPL.

The design has been hotly contested among European Space Agency members, many of whom are in favor of other variants based on the upgraded Ariane 5. Some of the largest rockets of all time included those developed by NPO Energia, capable of lofting 100,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. An Energia N1 Moon rocket exploded on the pad on July 3rd 1969, effectively ending the Soviet Union’s bid to put a man on the Moon. In comparison,   the massive Saturn V rocket — thus far, the largest and most powerful ever fielded by the United States  — could deploy the equivalent of 118,000 kg to low Earth orbit and 47,000 kg to a Trans-Lunar Insertion orbit around the Moon.

But that’s just the beginning. Though the Orion capsule will ride atop a United Launch Services Delta IV Heavy tomorrow — a system usually employed for launching clandestine spy satellites — NASA hopes to have its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket sitting on the pad by the end of 2018. Boeing was awarded the contract for SLS earlier this year, and the system largely rose re-imagined from the ashes of the cancelled Constellation program. The SLS Block 1 is expected to have a lift capacity of 70,000 kg to LEO, while Boeing’s proposed SLS Block 2 variant would, if fielded, have the largest lift capacity of all time at 130,000 kg to LEO. Only the Long March 9 proposed by China approaches that lofty goal.

Credit: NASA.
An artist’s concept of Orion headed towards deep space. Credit: NASA.

And the wild card is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Already in the game of sending cargo via its Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, SpaceX is developing a reputation for dependability when it comes to getting satellites into orbit at relatively low cost. SpaceX hopes to field its Falcon 9 Heavy with a lift capacity of 53,000 kg to LEO sometime in 2015, and many proposed missions are banking on the the Falcon 9 Heavy as a future service provider for solar system exploration.  Certainly, with the recent failure of the Antares rocket on October 28th, SpaceX may look like the more attractive option to many, and the development of the Ariane 6 is expected to face stiff competition in the brave new world of high tech rocketry.

Ever wonder what all of these launch vehicles and spacecraft past and present look like stacked up against each other? There’s a graphic for that, recently featured on Io9:

Credit: Heaney555
A breakdown and comparison of spacecraft launch systems. Click to enlarge. Credit: Reddit user Heaney555.

From Almaz to Zarya, this is a fascinating study in scale comparison. Be sure to zoom in and check out the tiny ant-like crew compliment of each, also to scale. Of course, the backyard satellite-tracker in us can’t help be notice the brightness-versus size comparison for many of these. For example, the International Space Station on a good pass can appear as bright as Venus at -4th magnitude — and even look “TIE Fighter shaped” in binoculars — while the smaller Shenzhou and Soyuz modules are often barely visible as they pass overhead. And how we miss watching the Shuttle paired with the International Space Station as they both glided silently by:

But such orbital drama can still be caught if you know when and where to look for it. And speaking of which, viewers in western Australia and the southwestern United States may be able to see Orion and EFT-1 on its first lap around the Earth tomorrow before it fires its engines over the Atlantic headed for a 5,800 km apogee over southern Africa. Assuming EFT-1 lifts off at the beginning of its 159 minute launch window at 7:05 AM EST/12:05 UT, expect it to see it crossing dusk skies over western Australia at 55 minutes after liftoff, and dawn skies for the southwestern U.S. at 95 minutes post-launch respectively.

An awesome sight to behold indeed, marking the start of a brave new era of space exploration.

So what do you, the astute and space-minded reader of Universe Today think? Are the SLS and its kin the lift vehicle(s) of the future, or ‘rockets to nowhere?’ Will they survive the political winds that are bound to blow over the coming decade? Will the Ariane 6 best the Falcon 9 as the lift platform of choice?

One thing is for sure, expect coverage of space exploration drama and more to continue here at Universe Today!



Dragon’s Ocean Splashdown Caps Historic Opening of New Space Era

1st picture of the Dragon spacecraft as it floats in the ocean awaiting recovery ships. Dragon splashed down successfully on May 31, 2012 at 11:42 a.m. EDT in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of California. In a carefully timed sequence of events, dual drogue parachutes deploy at 45,000 feet to stabilize and slow the spacecraft. Full deployment of the drogues triggers the release of the main parachutes, each 116 feet in diameter, at about 10,000 feet, with the drogues detaching from the spacecraft. Main parachutes further slow the spacecraft's descent to approximately 16 to 18 feet per second. Credit: Michael Altenhofen


Concluding a perfectly executed and history making test flight, the first private spacecraft ever to visit and dock at the International Space Station (ISS) performed a picture perfect splashdown at 11:42 a.m. EDT (1542 GMT) today, May 31, in the Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of Baja, California, some 560 miles southwest of Los Angeles to cap the opening to a historic new Era in Space Exploration.

Dragon is the linchpin in NASA’s bold Commercial Crew and Cargo program aimed at significantly driving down the cost of transporting cargo and crews to low Earth orbit by using private commercial companies to foster competition and innovation in the free market setting of the new, post-shuttle Era of Commercial Space Transportation.

NASA aircraft were able to transmit live video of the last few minutes of the Dragon’s breathtaking descent, unfurling of the trio of parachutes and ocean splashdown – pretty much on target at 27 degrees latitude and 127 degrees west longitude.

The official mission elapsed time on landing was 9 days, 7 hours and 58 minutes.

Splashdown of the Dragon cargo craft took place barely 6 hours after departing the orbiting lab complex following detachment from the station using the station robotic arm. The ISS astronauts released the craft from the grip of the station’s robot arm at 5:49 a.m. EST (949 GMT) this morning, May 31.

Screen shot of Dragon after May 31 splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA TV

The two spacecraft were soaring some 250 miles (400 km) high above the Indian Ocean east of Africa at the moment of release and departure. Altogether, Dragon spent 5 days, 16 hours and 5 minutes mated to the station.

The gumdrop shaped Dragon capsule is 4.4 meters (14.4 ft) tall, and 3.66 m (12 ft) in diameter and has an internal pressurized volume of about 350 cubic feet .

The Dragon cargo resupply capsule was built by SpaceX and is being retrieved from the ocean by a flotilla of three recovery ships. The ships reached Dragon, detached the chutes and are in the process of recovery. It will take about two days to deliver the craft to the port of Los Angeles where the most critical cargo items will be removed for quick shipment to NASA. The capsule will then be shipped to SpaceX’s McGregor,Texas facility for post-flight evaluation.

Dragon is the world’s first commercial spacecraft whose purpose is to carry supplies to and from the ISS and partially replace the cargo capabilities previously performed by NASA’s now retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters. Dragon was designed, developed and built by Hawthorne, Calif., based SpaceX Corporation, founded in 2002 by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk.

“This has been a fantastic day,” said Musk at a post splashdown briefing for reporters. “I want to thank NASA and the whole SpaceX team for an amazing job.”

“I’m really proud of everyone. This really couldn’t have gone better. We’re looking forward to doing lots more missions in the future and continuing to upgrade the technology and push the frontier of space transportation.”

“In baseball terminology this would be a grand slam. I am overwhelmed with joy.”

The de-orbit burn to drop Dragon out of orbit took place precisely on time at 10:51 a.m. EDT for a change in velocity of 100 m/sec about 246 miles above the Indian Ocean directly to the south of India as the craft was some 200 miles in front of the ISS.

Screen shot of Dragon after May 31 splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA TV

The Draco thruster firing lasted 9 minutes and 50 seconds and sent Dragon plummeting through the Earth’s atmosphere where it had to survive extreme temperatures exceeding 3000 degrees F (1600 degrees C) before landing.

The Dragon capsule is the first US vehicle of any kind to arrive at the ISS since the July 2011 forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program resulted in the total loss of all US capability to send cargo and humans crews to the massive orbiting outpost.

SpaceX signed a contract with NASA in 2006 to conduct twelve Falcon 9/Dragon resupply missions to carry about 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS at a cost of some $1.6 Billion over the next few years.

This was the third test flight of the Falcon 9 rocket and the first test flight of the Dragon in this vastly upgraded configuration with solar panels. A future variant of Dragon will eventually blast US astronauts to space and restore US crew capability – perhaps by 2017 thanks to repeated cuts to NASA’s budget.

Only four entities have ever sent a spacecraft to dock at the ISS – the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Union. SpaceX is the first commercial entity to accomplish the same feat.

The precedent setting Dragon mission has opened a new era in spaceflight by giving birth to the first fully commercial mission to the orbiting space station complex and unlocking vast new possibilities for its utilization in science and exploration.

On May 22, Dragon thundered to orbit atop a SpaceX built Falcon 9 rocket during a pre-dawn liftoff at 3:44 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

After a three day chase, Dragon arrived at the ISS on May 25 and was deftly berthed at an open Earth-facing port on the Harmony Node 2 module after being dramatically captured by the astronaut crew using the station’s robotic arm in a landmark event in space history as the Dragon and the ISS were passing about 251 miles above Earth. Capture was confirmed at a mission elapsed time of 3 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes and 23 seconds.

Working in tandem, NASA astronaut Don Pettit and ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers snared the Dragon craft as it was drifting in free space about 10 m (32 ft) away with the 18 m (58 ft) long Canadian robot arm at 9:56 a.m. EDT and parked the first privately built capsule to an open port at 12:02 p.m. EDT on May 25.

The astronauts opened the hatch and ‘Entered the Dragon’ for the first time a day later on May 26 and then proceeded to unload the stowed cargo and refill it for the return trip to Earth.

On this first NASA sponsored Dragon test flight to rendezvous and dock at the ISS, the cargo craft was packed with 460 kilograms (1014 lbs) of non-critical cargo including 306 kg (674 lbs) of food and crew provisions; 21 kg (46 lbs) of science experiment; 123 kg (271 lbs) prepositioned cargo bags to be used for future flights; and 10 kg (22 lbs) of assorted computer supplies and a laptop.

Dragon splashed down successfully on May 31, 2012 at 11:42 a.m. EDT in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of California. In a carefully timed sequence of events, dual drogue parachutes deployed at 45,000 feet to stabilize and slow the spacecraft. Full deployment of the drogues triggers the release of the main parachutes, each 116 feet in diameter, at about 10,000 feet, with the drogues detaching from the spacecraft. Main parachutes further slow the spacecraft's descent to approximately 16 to 18 feet per second.

Unlike the other Russian, European and Japanese cargo freighters that service the ISS and then disintegrate on reentry, the SpaceX Dragon is uniquely equipped with a state of the art PICA-X heat shield that allows it to plunge safely through the Earth’s atmosphere and survive the fiery temperatures exceeding more than 3000 degrees F (1600 degrees C).

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket clears the tower after liftoff at 3:44 a.m. on May 22, 2012 from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on the first commercial mission to loft the Dragon cargo resupply vehicle to the International Space Station. The Dragon mission was a resounding success from launch to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on May 31 at 11:42 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

The down mass capability restores another critical capability lost with the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in July 2011. The astronauts filled Dragon with about 620 kilograms (1367 pounds) of science experiments, trash and non-critical items on this historic test flight.

The first operational Dragon resupply mission to the ISS could blast off as early as September, said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.

“We’ll await the final post flight report to make the determination that this was an extremely successful mission. But they should be well on their way to starting [delivery] services,” said Lindenmoyer at the briefing. “Of course, officially we will look at the post flight data and make an official determination. But I would say at this point it looks like 100 percent success.”

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Unveils Launch of Falcon Heavy, Worlds Most Powerful Rocket by 2013

The Falcon Heavy Rocket will be the most capable rocket in the world. only exceeded by the American Saturn V moon rocket which landed the first astronauts on the lunar surface in 1969. Credit: SpaceX

[/caption]Elon Musk, the CEO and chief rocket designer of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announced today (April 5) that SpaceX will build and launch the world’s most powerful rocket – dubbed the Falcon Heavy – within two years.

Musk said that he expects SpaceX will launch the first Falcon Heavy by late 2012 or early 2013 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

“We are excited to announce the Falcon Heavy and only recently completed the design,” said Musk.

“Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions.”

Musk unveiled the design plans for the privately developed, 227 foot tall heavy lift rocket at a briefing for reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

“This is a rocket of truly huge scale.”

Falcon Heavy would lift from 100,000 to 120,000 pounds to orbit, about three times the performance of the Falcon 9. It is comprised of three nine- engine Falcon 9 first stage booster cores and would utilize upgraded Merlin 1D engines currently being tested at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. The Falcon booster cores would be the first to have cross feed propellant capability enabling significant enhancements in payload performance, Musk explained.

“We expect to launch a lot, maybe 20 launches per year,” said Musk. He thinks that the launches would be spilt about equally between the current Falcon 9 and the new Falcon Heavy allowing SpaceX to compete in the full gamut of opportunities for commercial rocket providers. The Falcon Heavy could even be used for interplanetary science missions to Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System (watch for follow up article).

With over 3.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, Falcon Heavy will be the most capable rocket flying. By comparison, the liftoff thrust of the Falcon Heavy equals fifteen Boeing 747 aircraft at full power. Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon Heavy would also be launched from Cape Canaveral after upgrading the existing Falcon 9 pad at the Cape. Indeed a majority of launches is expected from Florida vs. California.

SpaceX is in discussions with NASA to also possibly use one of the shuttle pads at Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Both launch pads will be vacant after the shuttle stops flying later this year.

“First launch from our Cape Canaveral launch complex is planned for late 2013 or 2014,” Musk said.

The new heavy lift booster will have twice the performance capability of NASA’s retiring Space shuttle fleet or the Delta IV Heavy according to Musk.

“The Falcon Heavy will have more payload capability than any rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket.”

Musk said the Falcon Heavy will be dramatically cheaper and more cost effective compared to current rockets and set new world records in affordability and cost per pound. “The cost will be about $1000 per pound to orbit.” That price is a long sought and near mythical goal. It is also a critical selling point during these times of flat, very tight and declining budgets.

SpaceX says they are offering the Falcon 9 for some $50-60M and the Falcon Heavy for $80-$125M per launch. They say this compares to the projected Air Force average cost of $435M per launch for the 2012 budget year.

“The Falcon Heavy will be about one third the cost of the Delta IV Heavy and with twice the performance. That’s about 6 times more cost effective,” Musk stated. “That’s a pretty huge leap in capability.”

SpaceX will finance the cost of the first demonstration launch. The rocket will only loft several small payloads unless some organization is willing to take a gamble for a reduced cost. Without being specific, Musk added that SpaceX has had “strong interest from U.S. government agencies and commercial entities” for the second launch and beyond. “No one wants to be first.”

Comparison of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy offerd by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX

Ensuring reliability is key to SpaceX future. Musk explained that the Falcon Heavy is also designed to meet NASA human rating standards, unlike other satellite launch vehicles. The rocket is designed to meet higher structural safety margins of 40% above flight loads, rather than the 25% level of other rockets, and triple redundant avionics.

To date, SpaceX has launched two Falcon 9 rockets. NASA has awarded SpaceX with a $1.6 billion contract to conduct a minimum of twelve Falcon 9 flights with the Dragon spacecraft to deliver at least 20,000 kg of cargo to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) after the Space Shuttle is retired.

Musk said that there is a lot to be learned and applied from using high volume production techniques used in the automotive industry while maintaining stringent quality control.

The date of the frist Falcon Heavy launch is expected to depend greatly on regulatory requirements, just like the maiden launch of the Falcon 9.

The Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s entry into the heavy lift launch vehicle category. Capable of lifting over 32,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and over 19,500 kg to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), the Falcon Heavy will compete with the largest commercial launchers now available. It consists of a standard Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as liquid strap-on boosters. With the Falcon 9 first stage already designed to support the additional loads of this configuration and with common tanking and engines across both vehicles, development and operation of the Falcon Heavy will be highly cost-effective. Credit: SpaceX

Watch a SpaceX YouTube video about Falcon Heavy here: