ULA unveiled its New Generation Launch System – Vulcan rocket!

United Launch Alliance (ULA) unveiled its Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) at the 31st National Space Symposium in Colorado-Springs. The new rocket, Vulcan, will transform the future of space by making launch services more affordable and accessible.

Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, unveiling Vulcan rocket. Credit: ULA
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According to ULA's press-release, the NGLS brings together decades of experience on ULA's reliable Atlas V and Delta vehicles, combining the best features of each to produce an all-new, American-made rocket that will enable mission success from low Earth orbit all the way to Pluto. Launch debut of Vulcan is expected for 2019 from either Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg ULA's launch pads.

“More capabilities in space mean more capabilities here on Earth. Because NGLS will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market, it will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space. Whether it is scientific missions, medical advancements, national security or new economic opportunities for businesses, ULA’s new Vulcan rocket is a game-changer in terms of creating endless possibilities in space.” Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance.


To help give all Americans a chance to play a role in the future of space, last month ULA launched an online naming competition that allowed Americans to vote on their favorite name for the NGLS. 3 major candidates were Zeus, Vulcan, and GalaxyOne. More than one million votes were cast, and Vulcan was the top choice.

Baseball caps with 3 candidate-names for the NGSL. Credit: SpaceNews
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At the news announcement, Tory Bruno unveiled the Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) initiative, which will be introduced into NGLS and allow ULA to reuse the most expensive portion of the first stage – the booster main engines.

SMART reuse plan is the following. After separation from the upper stage, booster releases engines block, which is fitted with an inflatable heat shield in order to perform smooth hypersonic re-entry. In lower atmosphere engines deploy parachutes, re-entry speed dramatically decreases, and the engines unit captured by a helicopter. Upon soft landing being attached to the helicopter, rocket engines will be re-certified in a series of tests and re-attached to a new Vulcan rocket, waiting for their next mission.

According to ULA's calculation, engines, having only 25% of the booster weight, accumulate 65% of its cost. Therefore SMART plan of Vulcan engines reusability expected to save ULA around 90% in booster propulsion cost.

ULA's plan of 'SMART Reuse'. Credit: ULA
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Step one of NGLS will consist of a single booster stage, the high-energy Centaur second stage and either a 4- or 5-meter-diameter payload fairing. Up to four solid rocket boosters (SRB) augment the lift-off power of the 4-meter configuration, while up to six SRBs can be added to the 5-meter version.

In step two, the Centaur second stage will be replaced by the more powerful, innovative Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), making the NGLS capability that of today's Delta IV Heavy rocket. ACES, which is expected to be used in-flight for the first time in 2023, can execute almost unlimited burns, extending on-orbit operating time from hours to weeks.

ULA's advanced ACES upper stage explained. Credit: ULA
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Rocket engines

Vulcan first stage booster will be powered by a pair of BE-4 engines, being developed by Blue Origin, a privately funded aerospace company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. These US-made engines, designed for reuse, are expected to have each one 250 tons of thrust, produced by propellant components liquid oxygen - liquid natural gas. The engines are seen as a viable alternative to the Russian-made RD-180 engines. Full-scale tests of BE-4 are expected for 2016.

If something goes wrong with BE-4, Aerojet Rocketdyne will be the likeliest supplier of the engines for Vulcan first stage, since it is developing liquid oxygen/kerosene AR1 engines. The engines produce almost 230 tons of thrust each and incorporate the latest manufacturing technologies, such as additive manufacturing (3D printing), white light inspection and low-cost brazing and forming.

Vulcan SRBs will be made by one of two largest solid rocket motor manufacturers in the US – Orbital ATK or Aeroject Rocketdyne. Centaur upper stage, as it is known, is powered by Aerojet Rocketdyne's RL-10 liquid oxygen – liquid hydrogen rocket engine. Propulsion for the advanced ACES upper stage will be selected likely from two major candidates – Aeroject Rocketdyne or XCOR.

Artist concept of Centaur upper stage firing. Credit: NASA
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Tory Bruno said he supposed Vulcan mission cost starting from $100 million. Comparing to Delta IV Heavy that has similar capacity, this is times less. Development cost for the rocket was not disclosed, however, basing on past experience, Bruno estimated it at about '$1 billion for main engines, and another $1 billion for the rocket on top of them'.

ULA envisions a Vulcan flight rate capable of 10 to 20 flights per year. Certification process with the US Air Force has already been initiated in order to allow the latter to have full visibility throughout the development process.

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