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Launch vehicle

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Russian Soyuz TMA-5 lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan heading for the International Space Station
Comparison of launch vehicles. Show payload masses to LEO, GTO, TLI and MTO

A launch vehicle is typically a rocket-powered vehicle designed to carry a payload (a crewed spacecraft or satellites) from Earth's surface or lower atmosphere to outer space. The most common form is the ballistic missile-shaped multistage rocket, but the term is more general and also encompasses vehicles like the Space Shuttle. Most launch vehicles operate from a launch pad, supported by a launch control center and systems such as vehicle assembly and fueling.[1] Launch vehicles are engineered with advanced aerodynamics and technologies, which contribute to high operating costs.

An orbital launch vehicle must lift its payload at least to the boundary of space, approximately 150 km (93 mi) and accelerate it to a horizontal velocity of at least 7,814 m/s (17,480 mph).[2] Suborbital vehicles launch their payloads to lower velocity or are launched at elevation angles greater than horizontal.

Practical orbital launch vehicles use chemical propellants such as solid fuel, liquid hydrogen, kerosene, liquid oxygen, or hypergolic propellants.

Launch vehicles are classified by their orbital payload capacity, ranging from small-, medium-, heavy- to super-heavy lift.


Spaceflight began in the 20th century following theoretical and practical breakthroughs by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert H. Goddard, and Hermann Oberth, each of whom published works proposing rockets as the means for spaceflight.[a] The first successful large-scale rocket programs were initiated in Nazi Germany by Wernher von Braun. The Soviet Union took the lead in the post-war Space Race, launching the first satellite,[3] the first animal,[4]: 155  the first human[5] and the first woman[6] into orbit. The United States would then land the first men on the Moon in 1969. Through the late 20th century, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, and China were also working on projects to reach space.

Mass to orbit[edit]

Launch vehicles are classed by NASA according to low Earth orbit payload capability:[7]

Sounding rockets are similar to small-lift launch vehicles, however they are usually even smaller and do not place payloads into orbit. A modified SS-520 sounding rocket was used to place a 4-kilogram payload (TRICOM-1R) into orbit in 2018.[11]

General information[edit]

Orbital spaceflight requires a satellite or spacecraft payload to be accelerated to very high velocity. In the vacuum of space, reaction forces must be provided by the ejection of mass, resulting in the rocket equation. The physics of spaceflight are such that rocket stages are typically required to achieve the desired orbit.[citation needed]

Expendable launch vehicles are designed for one-time use, with boosters that usually separate from their payload and disintegrate during atmospheric reentry or on contact with the ground. In contrast, reusable launch vehicles are designed to be recovered intact and launched again. The Falcon 9 is an example of a reusable launch vehicle.[12] As of 2023, all reusable launch vehicles that were ever operational have been partially reusable, meaning some components are recovered and others are not. This usually means the recovery of specific stages, usually just the first stage, but sometimes specific components of a rocket stage may be recovered while others are not. The Space Shuttle, for example, recovered and reused its solid rocket boosters, the Space Shuttle orbiter that also acted as a second stage, and the engines used by the core stage (the RS-25, which was located at the back of the orbiter), however the fuel tank that the engines sourced fuel from, which was separate from the engines, was not reused.[citation needed]

For example, the European Space Agency is responsible for the Ariane V, and the United Launch Alliance manufactures and launches the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets.[citation needed]

Launch platform locations[edit]

Sea launch by a Chinese company Orienspace

Launchpads can be located on land (spaceport), on a fixed ocean platform (San Marco), on a mobile ocean platform (Sea Launch), and on a submarine. Launch vehicles can also be launched from the air.[citation needed]

Flight regimes[edit]

A launch vehicle will start off with its payload at some location on the surface of the Earth. To reach orbit, the vehicle must travel vertically to leave the atmosphere and horizontally to prevent re-contacting the ground. The required velocity varies depending on the orbit but will always be extreme when compared to velocities encountered in normal life.[citation needed]

Launch vehicles provide varying degrees of performance. For example, a satellite bound for Geostationary orbit (GEO) can either be directly inserted by the upper stage of the launch vehicle or launched to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). A direct insertion places greater demands on the launch vehicle, while GTO is more demanding of the spacecraft. Once in orbit, launch vehicle upper stages and satellites can have overlapping capabilities, although upper stages tend to have orbital lifetimes measured in hours or days while spacecraft can last decades.[citation needed]

Distributed launch[edit]

Distributed launch involves the accomplishment of a goal with multiple spacecraft launches. A large spacecraft such as the International Space Station can be constructed by assembling modules in orbit, or in-space propellant transfer conducted to greatly increase the delta-V capabilities of a cislunar or deep space vehicle. Distributed launch enables space missions that are not possible with single launch architectures.[13]

Mission architectures for distributed launch were explored in the 2000s[14] and launch vehicles with integrated distributed launch capability built in began development in 2017 with the Starship design. The standard Starship launch architecture is to refuel the spacecraft in low Earth orbit to enable the craft to send high-mass payloads on much more energetic missions.[15]

Return to launch site[edit]

After 1980, but before the 2010s, two orbital launch vehicles developed the capability to return to the launch site (RTLS). Both the US Space Shuttle—with one of its abort modes[16][17]—and the Soviet Buran[18] had a designed-in capability to return a part of the launch vehicle to the launch site via the mechanism of horizontal-landing of the spaceplane portion of the launch vehicle. In both cases, the main vehicle thrust structure and the large propellant tank were expendable, as had been the standard procedure for all orbital launch vehicles flown prior to that time. Both were subsequently demonstrated on actual orbital nominal flights, although both also had an abort mode during launch that could conceivably allow the crew to land the spaceplane following an off-nominal launch.[citation needed]

In the 2000s, both SpaceX and Blue Origin have privately developed a set of technologies to support vertical landing of the booster stage of a launch vehicle. After 2010, SpaceX undertook a development program to acquire the ability to bring back and vertically land a part of the Falcon 9 orbital launch vehicle: the first stage. The first successful landing was done in December 2015,[19] since 2017 rocket stages routinely land either at a landing pad adjacent to the launch site or on a landing platform at sea, some distance away from the launch site.[20] The Falcon Heavy is similarly designed to reuse the three cores comprising its first stage. On its first flight in February 2018, the two outer cores successfully returned to the launch site landing pads while the center core targeted the landing platform at sea but did not successfully land on it.[21]

Blue Origin developed similar technologies for bringing back and landing their suborbital New Shepard, and successfully demonstrated return in 2015, and successfully reused the same booster on a second suborbital flight in January 2016.[22] By October 2016, Blue had reflown, and landed successfully, that same launch vehicle a total of five times.[23] It must however be noted that the launch trajectories of both vehicles are very different, with New Shepard going straight up and down, whereas Falcon 9 has to cancel substantial horizontal velocity and return from a significant distance downrange.[citation needed]

Both Blue Origin and SpaceX also have additional reusable launch vehicles under development. Blue is developing the first stage of the orbital New Glenn LV to be reusable, with first flight planned for no earlier than 2024. SpaceX has a new super-heavy launch vehicle under development for missions to interplanetary space. The SpaceX Starship is designed to support RTLS, vertical-landing and full reuse of both the booster stage and the integrated second-stage/large-spacecraft that are designed for use with Starship.[24] Its first launch attempt took place in April 2023; however, both stages were lost during ascent.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
    • Tsiolkovsky, 1903, Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices
    • Goddard, 1919, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes
    • Oberth, 1923, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen


  1. ^ "NASA Kills 'Wounded' Launch System Upgrade at KSC". Florida Today. Archived from the original on 2002-10-13.
  2. ^ Hill, James V. H. (April 1999), "Getting to Low Earth Orbit", Space Future, archived from the original on 2012-03-19, retrieved 2012-03-18.
  3. ^ "Sputnik | Satellites, History, & Facts | Britannica". www.britannica.com.
  4. ^ Siddiqi, Asif A. (2000). Challenge To Apollo: The Soviet Union and The Space Race, 1945-1974.
  5. ^ "Yuri Gagarin: First Man in Space". NASA. Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  6. ^ "This Day in History: Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space". History.com. June 16, 1963. Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  7. ^ NASA Space Technology Roadmaps - Launch Propulsion Systems, p.11: "Small: 0-2t payloads, Medium: 2-20t payloads, Heavy: 20-50t payloads, Super Heavy: >50t payloads"
  8. ^ "Launch services—milestones". Arianespace. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
  9. ^ a b "Welcome to French Guiana" (PDF). arianespace.com. Arianespace. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
  10. ^ HSF Final Report: Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation Archived 2009-11-22 at the Wayback Machine, October 2009, Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, p. 64-66: "5.2.1 The Need for Heavy Lift ... require a “super heavy-lift” launch vehicle ... range of 25 to 40 mt, setting a notional lower limit on the size of the super heavy-lift launch vehicle if refueling is available ... this strongly favors a minimum heavy-lift capacity of roughly 50 mt ..."
  11. ^ "SS-520". space.skyrocket.de. Retrieved 2020-06-02.
  12. ^ Lindsey, Clark (28 March 2013). "SpaceX moving quickly towards fly-back first stage". NewSpace Watch. Archived from the original on 16 April 2013. Retrieved 29 March 2013.
  13. ^ Kutter, Bernard; Monda, Eric; Wenner, Chauncey; Rhys, Noah (2015). Distributed Launch - Enabling Beyond LEO Missions (PDF). AIAA 2015. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
  14. ^ Chung, Victoria I.; Crues, Edwin Z.; Blum, Mike G.; Alofs, Cathy (2007). An Orion/Ares I Launch and Ascent Simulation - One Segment of the Distributed Space Exploration Simulation (DSES) (PDF). AIAA 2007. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
  15. ^ Foust, Jeff (29 September 2017). "Musk unveils revised version of giant interplanetary launch system". SpaceNews. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
  16. ^ "Return to Launch Site". NASA.gov. Archived from the original on 15 April 2015. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
  17. ^ "Space Shuttle Abort Evolution" (PDF). ntrs.nasa.gov. 26 September 2011. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
  18. ^ Handwerk, Brian (12 April 2016). "The Forgotten Soviet Space Shuttle Could Fly Itself". National Geographic. National Geographic Society. Archived from the original on April 15, 2016. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
  19. ^ Newcomb, Alyssa; Dooley, Erin (21 December 2015). "SpaceX Historic Rocket Landing Is a Success". ABC News. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
  20. ^ Sparks, Daniel (17 August 2016). "SpaceX Lands 6th Rocket, Moves Closer to Reusability". Los Motley Fool. Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  21. ^ Gebhardt, Chris (February 5, 2018). "SpaceX successfully debuts Falcon Heavy in demonstration launch from KSC – NASASpaceFlight.com". NASASpaceFlight.com. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  22. ^ Foust, Jeff (22 January 2016). "Blue Origin reflies New Shepard suborbital vehicle". SpaceNews. Retrieved 1 November 2017.
  23. ^ Foust, Jeff (5 October 2016). "lue Origin successfully tests New Shepard abort system". SpaceNews. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
  24. ^ Foust, Jeff (15 October 2017). "Musk offers more technical details on BFR system - SpaceNews.com". SpaceNews.com. Retrieved February 23, 2018.

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