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A launch vehicle or carrier rocket can carry a payload from the surface to outer space, such as spacecraft and satellites. They are often operated with extensive infrastructure such as launch pads, vehicle assembly, fueling systems, range safety, etc. The difficulties of spaceflight demand launch vehicles to be engineered with very advanced aerodynamics and technologies – a big contributor to the vehicle's expensive operating cost.
A suborbital vehicle only need to accelerate near the boundary of space, commonly defined as 100 km (62 mi) of the Kármán line. However, orbital launch vehicles from Earth must reach much higher speed, which makes most practical vehicles to be multistage rocket and use chemical propellant, such as solid propellant mixtures, liquid hydrogen, kerosene, oxygen, hypergolics, etc. These launch vehicles can be classified by their payload capacity, ranging from small-, medium-, heavy- to super-heavy lift.
Mass to orbit
- Small-lift launch vehicle: < 2,000 kilograms (4,400 lb) - e.g. Vega
- Medium-lift launch vehicle: 2,000 to 20,000 kilograms (4,400 to 44,100 lb) - e.g. Soyuz ST
- Heavy-lift launch vehicle: > 20,000 to 50,000 kilograms (44,000 to 110,000 lb) - e.g. Ariane 5
- Super-heavy lift vehicle: > 50,000 kilograms (110,000 lb) - e.g. Saturn V
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.
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.
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 vehicle boosters are designed to be recovered intact and launched again. The Falcon 9 is an example reusable launch vehicle.
Launch platform locations
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.
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.
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.
Mission architectures for distributed launch were explored in the 2000s 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.
Return to launch site
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—and the Soviet Buran 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.
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, since then several additional rocket stages landed either at a landing pad adjacent to the launch site or on a landing platform at sea, some distance away from the launch site. 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.
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. By October 2016, Blue had reflown, and landed successfully, that same launch vehicle a total of five times. 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.
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 2020. SpaceX has a new super-heavy launch vehicle under development for missions to interplanetary space. The Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) 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 the BFR. First launch is expected in the early 2020s.
- Air launch to orbit
- Sounding rocket
- List of orbital launch systems
- Comparison of orbital launch systems
- List of space launch system designs
- List of human spaceflights
- Timeline of spaceflight
- Rocket launch
- Space logistics
- Space exploration
- See for example: "NASA Kills 'Wounded' Launch System Upgrade at KSC". Florida Today. Archived from the original on 2002-10-13.
- 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"
- "Launch services—milestones". Arianespace. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
- "Welcome to French Guiana" (PDF). arianespace.com. Arianespace. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
- HSF Final Report: Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation, 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 ..."
- "SS-520". space.skyrocket.de. Retrieved 2020-06-02.
- Lindsey, Clark (28 March 2013). "SpaceX moving quickly towards fly-back first stage". NewSpace Watch. Retrieved 29 March 2013.
- 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.
- 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.
- Foust, Jeff (29 September 2017). "Musk unveils revised version of giant interplanetary launch system". SpaceNews. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
- "Return to Launch Site". NASA.gov. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- "Space Shuttle Abort Evolution" (PDF). ntrs.nasa.gov. 26 September 2011. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- Handwerk, Brian (12 April 2016). "The Forgotten Soviet Space Shuttle Could Fly Itself". National Geographic. National Geographic Society. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- Newcomb, Alyssa; Dooley, Erin (21 December 2015). "SpaceX Historic Rocket Landing Is a Success". ABC News. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- Sparks, Daniel (17 August 2016). "SpaceX Lands 6th Rocket, Moves Closer to Reusability". Los Motley Fool. Retrieved 27 February 2017.
- Gebhardt, Chris (February 5, 2018). "SpaceX successfully debuts Falcon Heavy in demonstration launch from KSC – NASASpaceFlight.com". NASASpaceFlight.com. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
- Foust, Jeff (22 January 2016). "Blue Origin reflies New Shepard suborbital vehicle". SpaceNews. Retrieved 1 November 2017.
- Foust, Jeff (5 October 2016). "lue Origin successfully tests New Shepard abort system". SpaceNews. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
- Bergin, Chris (12 September 2016). "Blue Origin introduce the New Glenn orbital LV". NASASpaceFlight.com. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
- Foust, Jeff (15 October 2017). "Musk offers more technical details on BFR system - SpaceNews.com". SpaceNews.com. Retrieved February 23, 2018.