Meet ULA’s Vulcan Rocket

Vulcan Booster / Image Credit United Launch Alliance

United Launch Alliance formally introduced its new booster on Monday. Intended to replace both the Atlas and Delta product lines over time, the new rocket’s name is Vulcan., although ULA also refers to the booster as the Next Generation Launch System. The name was chosen in an on-line vote which ULA President Tory Bruno said drew over a million votes. The two other names making the final cut were Zeus, which would have fit in rather nicely with familiar American booster names such as Saturn, Atlas, Titan and Thor, and GalaxyOne, which really didn’t make much sense.

The selection of the name Vulcan however, would appear to be the best of both worlds, drawing from both Roman mythology (the Greek equivalent, Hephaestus, just doesn’t have the same ring) as well as from American mythology, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. As an homage to the late Leonard Nimoy, the name is a great one, and although the final results were not released, one would suspect that the voting wasn’t even close. While ULA no doubt hopes the Vulcan booster will be “the logical choice” for future launch services,  if that is to be the case, the company may need to draw inspiration from some of the Roman god’s main characteristics. As the god of fire and of the forge, Vulcan is something of a rarity, a hard working deity among a notoriously lazy and fickle bunch. Based on the details provided yesterday, which do not include pricing, ULA will have to be equally industrious in making the Vulcan competitive with the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

As described, the Vulcan, which will make its debut in 2019,  will be a single core booster based around the Atlas V first stage, but most likely powered by two Blue Origin BE-4 LNG engines. If the BE-4 runs into development difficulties, ULA could substitute the AR-1 kerolox engine which Aerojet Rocketdyne is seeking to build, but that engine is also unproven, and such a significant change would almost certainly result in a delay.

Either way, ULA will maintain the tradition of dial-a-rocket combinations in which varying numbers of strap on solid rocket motors can be added to the first stage for increased thrust at liftoff. The second stage will initially be the venerable Centaur, but that would be replaced by the ACES, or Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage in 2023.

The ACES stage, which Bruno proclaimed “changes everything” is a concept which has been around for a number of years, and it is undeniably innovative. In short, it turns the short lived Centaur upper stage into a sort of space tug/fuel depot featuring active management of the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuels through better insulation and cryocoolers. Those changes also turn the stage into what amounts to a large fuel cell capable of producing steady electrical power, and with the addition of guidance and thrusters, a multi-function space tug which can serve a variety of purposes.

ULA believes that flexibility opens the door for the final step in its four point plan, “distributed lift.”

Beginning as early as 2024, multiple Vulcan launches could result in the construction of a variety of new space assets, including water and fuel depots, as well as human habitats, all assembled by the ACES stage.

But what about the third stage?  Much like ACES, ULA’s third component, introducing a form of reusability, is drawn from an old idea as well. In this case it is a long standing proposal to recovery the Atlas V’s RD-180 main engine by detaching from the booster after stage separation, and parachuting it back towards, but not to, Earth.  Instead of dealing with the hazards of salt water immersion, ULA would instead snatch the descending engine package, which would be stabilized by a hypersonic decelerator, out of the air via helicopter, and fly it gently back to shore.

With the RD-180 now problematic for political reasons, ULA is planning to employ the same technique for the Vulcan and its American built propulsion package. The recovered engines would then be integrated onto a new booster, thereby significantly slashing production costs. With no pricing information provided, it is difficult to know where Vulcan will fit in. Bruno did sate however that ULA will be making a major announcement regarding a new sales strategy later in the year. There is this however. Even if Vulcan cannot compete directly on price with SpaceX and the Falcon 9, ULA’s introduction of partial reusability may be sufficient to make it an Ariane killer, and that might just be enough.

In case you missed it, and many people did due to the fact that the timing of the press conference happened to coincide with SpaceX’s first launch attempt for the CRS-6 mission to ISS, the complete video is below.



About the Author:

Post a Comment