Rocket enthusiasts are lucky enough to see the debut of a handful of big, powerful rockets every decade. For example, in the past 10 years, only three rockets with a capacity of 25 tons or more have made their debut in low Earth orbit: the Russian Angara A5 flew in 2014, the Chinese Long March 5 in 2016 and the SpaceX Falcon earlier this year. year heavy.
However, there is now a chance that up to four large and powerful rockets will make their debut in one year, as four boosters have a first launch scheduled for 2020. Of course, there is also a chance that none of them will fly. Delays seem inevitable in the launch industry, especially with such large and in some ways unprecedented boosters. But given the uncertainty and unprecedented potential, we thought it might be fun to assess whether any or all of them would make it.
Ars reached out to several launch industry experts and colleagues in space journalism to seek opinions on the feasibility of these launch dates. To be clear, the “confidence” in reaching a launch in 2020 — and the “estimated launch dates” below are educated guesses at best — is a reflection of what these informed folks think could happen. Keep in mind that there are many, many variables that can fit into an actual launch date: financing, hardware readiness, component testing, integrated testing, software, ground system readiness, and much more. So reservation.
Finally, as ardent fans of rockets — and seeing things actually get done in space — we hope all of these vehicles will make it into 2020. If you don’t like these predictions, please prove us wrong.
Capacity to LEO: 22 tons
Current launch date: Mid 2020
To trust: Medium to High
Our Estimated Launch Date: 4Q 2020
We have the utmost confidence in this rocket because the various components are well under development, it is fully funded and the rocket builds on the existing heritage of the Ariane 5 booster. The French space agency CNES is expected to complete structural work on the Ariane 6 launch site this year. Arianegroup has been testing an updated engine for the rocket, the Vulcain 2.1, since January. And just this month, the new P120C boosters that will power the rocket from the launch pad were successfully tested for the first time.
Because of all these factors, along with a sense of urgency in Europe about the need to start flying the Ariane 6 in order to become more competitive with the likes of SpaceX, we have the utmost confidence in the first launch of this vehicle in 2020. Book you tickets to French Guiana for now, but maybe write the launch of Ariane 6 in your diary with a little confidence.
Space Launch System
Capacity to LEO: 70+ tons
Current launch date: December 2019-June 2020
To trust: Medium
Our Estimated Launch Date: 2Q 2021
Yes, the Space Launch System has slipped a lot already. Work on the vehicle began in 2011, when we were told that using historic space shuttle components, such as side-mounted solid rocket boosters and the shuttle’s main engine, would help streamline the development of the world’s largest rocket.
However, despite NASA’s extraordinary expenditure of $2 billion a year to develop the SLS rocket, it has faced technical difficulties and delays from its initial November 2017 launch date. The prime contractor for the core phase, Boeing, has now begun. producing fuel tanks for the rocket’s massive core stage, but a full test of the core stage integrated with its four main engines will not take place until sometime next year.
Experienced rocket scientists often say that the most challenging part of a rocket’s development occurs during this integration (when the various parts of the core phase are assembled) and testing phase. For this reason, we’re not too confident about a launch within two years from now. A successful core phase test next year would change that.
Capacity to LEO: 45 tons
Current launch date: 2020
To trust: Low to Medium
Our Estimated Launch Date: 2Q 2021
Blue Origin, backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, certainly has plenty of money. It also has a massive new rocket factory in Florida to assemble the New Glenn booster, and its first stage motor, the BE-4, continues to undergo a rigorous testing plan in West Texas.
But despite these resources and a great team of engineers assembled by Bezos, it’s nevertheless a huge leap for the company to go from the single-engine New Shepard launcher, with 110,000 pounds of thrust, to the New Glenn booster, with seven much larger ones. engines and its nearly four million pounds of thrust at takeoff.
Do we think Blue Origin will get there? Absolute. Do we think it will happen in 2020? Well… we hope so.
Capacity to LEO: 35 tons
Current launch date: Mid 2020
To trust: Low
Our Estimated Launch Date: 1Q 2022
Like ArianeGroup, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has developed a new rocket with the intention of competing with SpaceX. The company was also told by Congress to stop using Russian engines, and so it must continue with the proven Atlas V rocket. (By the way, don’t confuse the Vulcan rocket with the Ariane 6’s Vulcain engine. They’re completely different. And the Europeans will tell you they chose the name first.)
One problem with Vulcan is that it is not at all clear that ULA’s parent companies, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, have fully committed the resources needed to complete Vulcan’s development. Instead, before completing the Vulcan missile, ULA may wait for the US Department of Defense to announce the next round of Launch Service Agreement contracts. That should happen sometime this summer. This may help explain why company officials always say “coming soon” when asked about selecting an engine for Vulcan.
The rocket also has a very prominent skeptic: SpaceX’s Elon Musk. Musk’s famous statement: “I’ll seriously eat my hat with a side of mustard if that rocket flies a national security spacecraft before 2023.” Presumably, Vulcan would have to fly a number of missions before being certified for a national security launch, yet for a third mission, 2023 does not inspire confidence in a first launch in 2020.
Even more rockets
The fun doesn’t stop with these four titanic boosters. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK) is developing the large Omega rocket for a possible launch in 2021, although like the Vulcan, it may depend on funding from the DOD’s Launch Services Agreement to reach completion.
Then there’s SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket. This would be the most ambitious rocket ever built, requiring several engineering marvels before rolling to a launch pad. Beyond that, there are serious questions about the funding needed to get through the development of the super-heavy rocket and a first launch in the early 2020s. That said, Musk and SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell are fully committed to the BFR. So we expect to see it someday – the sooner the better.