The Atlas V missile is not the most powerful missile in the world, but it can credibly claim to be the most reliable. Before Friday morning, it had flown into space 62 times, completing its primary mission each time. That 100 percent success rate is unparalleled in the history of orbital rockets over so many flights. That is why it is a source of pride for its manufacturer, United Launch Alliance.
Friday’s 63rd flight was also a success, carrying the US Navy’s MUOS-5 satellite into geostationary orbit 19,000 miles above Earth. This is the last satellite in the five-satellite constellation, providing war fighters with significantly improved communications.
The launch was also notable for flying the 551 variant of the missile. This combines the core stage with five solid rocket boosters, which burn for 88.3 seconds at the start of flight to give the rocket an initial kick off the launch pad. This most powerful variant of the Atlas V rocket can carry up to 19 tons of payload to orbit and 8.9 tons to geostationary orbit. The 551 configuration first flew back in 2006, when it launched the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
But the reliability of the Atlas V rocket comes at a price. United Launch Alliance purchases the main engine of the liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene vehicle, the RD-180, from Russia. And this engine has been carrying an ever-increasing political price amid mounting tensions with Russia as some members of Congress are hesitant to launch US national security charges on vehicles powered by Russian engines. United Launch Alliance has a 2022 deadline to end reliance on the Russian engine.
To that end, the company has begun work on a rocket to replace the Atlas V, dubbed Vulcan, which will likely be powered by Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine. A first flight could take place as early as 2019. As part of that process, the company is developing an upper stage engine that will be optimized for near-Earth and lunar cislunar space. To that end, United Launch Alliance is in a way committed to the development of a cislunar economy that will need its transportation services.
Frame image by United Launch Alliance