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In spaceflight, a launch vehicle or carrier rocket is a rocket used to carry a payload from Earth's surface into outer space. A launch system includes the launch vehicle, the launch pad, and other infrastructure. Although a carrier rocket's payload is often an artificial satellite placed into orbit, some spaceflights, such as sounding rockets, are sub-orbital, while others enable spacecraft to escape Earth orbit entirely.
Expendable launch vehicles are designed for one-time use. They usually separate from their payload and disintegrate during atmospheric reentry. In contrast, reusable launch vehicles are designed to be recovered intact and launched again. The Space Shuttle was a part of a launch vehicle with components used for multiple orbital spaceflights. SpaceX has developed a reusable rocket launching system to successfully bring back a part—the first stage—of their Falcon 9 and launch it again (first successful recovery in 2015 and first successful relaunch in March 2017) and Falcon Heavy (first attempt planned for 2017) launch vehicles. A fully reusable VTVL design is planned for all parts of the ITS launch vehicle. The low-altitude flight test program of an experimental technology-demonstrator launch vehicle began in 2012, with more extensive high-altitude over-water flight testing planned to begin in mid-2013, and continue on each subsequent Falcon 9 flight. Non-rocket spacelaunch alternatives are at the planning stage, although it is known that some companies are developing actual launch platforms, such as the Spanish zero2infinity with their rockoon-based launcher "bloostar".
Launch vehicles are often classified by the amount of mass they can carry into orbit. For example, a Proton rocket can lift 22,000 kilograms (49,000 lb) into low Earth orbit (LEO). Launch vehicles are also characterized by their number of stages. Rockets with as many as five stages have been successfully launched, and there have been designs for several single-stage-to-orbit vehicles. Additionally, launch vehicles are very often supplied with boosters supplying high early thrust, normally burning with other engines. Boosters allow the remaining engines to be smaller, reducing the burnout mass of later stages to allow larger payloads.
Other frequently reported characteristics of launch vehicles are the launching nation or space agency and the company or consortium manufacturing and launching the vehicle. 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. Many launch vehicles are considered part of a historical line of vehicles of the same or similar name; e.g., the Atlas V is the latest Atlas rocket.
By launch platform
- Land: spaceport and fixed missile silo (Strela) for converted ICBMs
- Sea: fixed platform (San Marco), mobile platform (Sea Launch), submarine (Shtil', Volna) for converted SLBMs
- Air: aircraft (Pegasus, Virgin Galactic LauncherOne, Stratolaunch Systems), balloon (zero2infinity's bloostar, ARCASPACE), JP Aerospace Orbital Ascender, proposal for permanent Buoyant space port
There are many ways to classify the sizes of launch vehicles. The US civilian space agency, NASA, uses a classification scheme that was articulated by the Augustine Commission created to review plans for replacing the Space Shuttle:
- A sounding rocket, used to study the atmosphere or perform brief experiments, is only capable of sub-orbital spaceflight and cannot reach orbit.
- A small-lift launch vehicle is capable of lifting up to 2,000 kg (4,400 lb) of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO).
- A medium-lift launch vehicle is capable of lifting 2,000 to 20,000 kg (4,400 to 44,100 lb) of payload into LEO.
- A heavy-lift launch vehicle is capable of lifting 20,000 to 50,000 kg (44,000 to 110,000 lb) of payload into LEO.
- A super-heavy lift vehicle is capable of lifting more than 50,000 kg (110,000 lb) of payload into LEO.
The leading European launch service provider, Arianespace, also uses the "heavy-lift" designation for its >20,000 kg (44,000 lb)-to-LEO Ariane 5 launch vehicle and "medium-lift" for its array of launch vehicles that lift 2,000 to 20,000 kg (4,400 to 44,100 lb) to LEO, including the Starsem/Arianespace Soyuz ST and pre-1999 versions of the Ariane 5. It refers to its 1,500 kg (3,300 lb) to LEO Vega launch vehicle as "light lift".
Suborbital launch vehicles are not capable of taking their payloads to the minimum horizontal speed necessary to achieve low Earth orbit with a perigee less than the Earth's mean radius, which speed is about 7,800 m/s (26,000 ft/s). Sounding rockets have long been used for brief, inexpensive unmanned space and microgravity experiments. The first US human spaceflight program, Project Mercury, used a single-stage derivative of the Redstone rocket family to launch its first two astronauts, Alan Shephard and Gus Grissom on suborbital flights, before sending astronauts into orbit on later flights. Current human-rated suborbital launch vehicles include SpaceShipOne and the upcoming SpaceShipTwo, among others (see space tourism).
The delta-v needed for orbital launch from the Earth's surface is greater than the minimum orbital speed; at least 9,300 m/s (31,000 ft/s), because of aerodynamic drag, (determined by ballistic coefficient), as well as gravity losses, and potential energy required if higher altitude is desired.
Minimizing air drag requires a reasonably high ballistic coefficient, a ratio of length to diameter greater than ten. This generally results in a launch vehicle that is at least 20 m (66 ft) long. Leaving the atmosphere as early on in the flight as possible provides a velocity loss due to air drag of around 300 m/s (980 ft/s).
The calculation of the total delta-v for launch is complicated, and in nearly all cases numerical integration is used; adding multiple delta-v values provides a pessimistic result, because the rocket can thrust while at an angle in order to reach orbit, thereby saving fuel as it can gain altitude and horizontal speed simultaneously.
Translunar and interplanetary
For a spacecraft to reach the Moon, Earth escape velocity of 11,200 m/s (37,000 ft/s) is not required, but a velocity close to this places the craft into an Earth orbit with a very high apogee which, if launched at the correct time, takes it to a point where the Moon's gravity will capture it.
Interplanetary flight requires exceeding escape velocity; the excess velocity either adds to the Earth's orbital velocity around the Sun to reach the outer planets or asteroids, or subtracts from it to reach Venus or Mercury, depending on the direction in which the terminal velocity is achieved.
Launch vehicles of sufficient size are capable of launching payloads smaller than their orbital capability, to the Moon or beyond. Translunar and interplanetary flights are commonly launched with the vehicle's final stage into a temporary parking orbit, to allow spacecraft checkout, and more precise control of the final injection maneuver, rather than being launched directly to terminal velocity.
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 the launch site and on a landing platform some distance away from the launch site. The Falcon Heavy, with first flight slated for 2017, is similarly designed for first stage RTLS and reuse. Blue Origin developed similar technologies for bringing back and landing their suborbital New Shepard, and successfully demonstrated return in early 2015, and successfully reused the same booster on a second suborbital flight in November 2015. 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 ITS launch vehicle is designed to support RTLS, vertical-landing and full reuse of both the booster stage and the integrated second-stage/large-spacecraft (Interplanetary Spaceship and ITS tanker) that are designed for use with the ITS LV. First launch is expected no earlier than 2020.
Each individual stage of a rocket is generally assembled at its manufacturing site and shipped to the launch site; the term vehicle assembly refers to the mating of rocket stage(s) with the spacecraft payload into a single assembly known as a space vehicle. Single-stage vehicles (such as sounding rockets), and multistage vehicles on the smaller end of the size range, can usually be assembled vertically, directly on the launch pad by lifting each stage and the spacecraft sequentially in place by means of a crane.
This is generally not practical for larger space vehicles, which are assembled off the pad and moved into place on the launch site by various methods. NASA's Apollo/Saturn V manned Moon landing vehicle, and Space Shuttle, were assembled vertically onto mobile launcher platforms with attached launch umbillical towers, in the Vehicle Assembly Building, and then a special crawler-transporter moved the entire vehicle stack to the launch pad in an upright position. In contrast, vehicles such as the Russian Soyuz rocket and the SpaceX Falcon 9 are assembled horizontally in a processing hangar, transported horizontally, and then brought upright at the pad.
Under international law, the nationality of the owner of a launch vehicle determines which country is responsible for any damages resulting from that vehicle.
In the US, any rocket launch that is not classified as amateur, and also is not "for and by the government," must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), located in Washington, DC.
Specific to launch vehicles
- See for example: "NASA Kills 'Wounded' Launch System Upgrade at KSC". Florida Today.
- Kerry Sheridan (29 September 2011). "SpaceX says 'reusable rocket' could help colonize Mars". Agence France-Presse.
- "Elon Musk says SpaceX will attempt to develop fully reusable space launch vehicle". Washington Post. 29 September 2011. Retrieved 11 October 2011.
Both of the rocket’s stages would return to the launch site and touch down vertically, under rocket power, on landing gear after delivering a spacecraft to orbit.
- Lindsey, Clark (28 March 2013). "SpaceX moving quickly towards fly-back first stage". NewSpace Watch. Retrieved 29 March 2013. (Subscription required (. ))
- Reyes, Tim (17 October 2014). "Balloon launcher Zero2Infinity Sets Its Sights to the Stars". Universe Today. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
- there are no Russian roadless terrain or railway car based mobile launchers converted for spacecraft launches.
- 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"
- 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 ..."
- "Launch services—milestones". Arianespace. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
- "Welcome to French Guiana" (PDF). arianespace.com. Arianespace. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
- "Return to Launch Site". NASA.gov. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- "Space Shuttle Abort Evolution" (PDF). ntrs.nasa.gov. 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". Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- Sparks, Daniel (17 August 2016). "SpaceX Lands 6th Rocket, Moves Closer to Reusability". Los Motley Fool. Retrieved 27 February 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.
- Richardson, Derek (27 September 2016). "Elon Musk Shows Off Interplanetary Transport System". Spaceflight Insider. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- 51 U.S.C. § 50901, Commercial space launch activities: Findings and purposes[
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- Time lapse captured from a satellite of a rocket carrying 35 satellites