Rockets remain the best way to escape our planet’s gravity well, and our firm handle on this technology means we’re now tossing more things into space than ever before. The public and private sectors are working feverishly to build launch vehicles that are powerful, affordable, and — very importantly — reliable. Indeed, the last thing anyone wants to see is a precious payload disintegrating on its journey to space. Here are 12 upcoming launch vehicles that have us particularly excited about the future of spaceflight.
NASA’s Space Launch System
It may be prohibitively expensive, long overdue, and already archaic, but we’re still super stoked about the upcoming launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The estimated cost of each SLS launch has been pegged at $US4.1 ($6) billion, the rocket was supposed to debut in 2016, and, unlike SpaceX’s upcoming Starship, it’s not reusable. Yet, there’s lots to like about the 98.15 m-tall monster that NASA likes to call the “Mega Moon rocket.”
The rocket will assume various configurations depending on the mission, but for Artemis 1, the inaugural launch scheduled for late August, SLS Block 1 will lift 27 metric tons to trans-lunar injection (note: hereafter all references to tons will be in metric tons). The Block 2 version will be capable of lifting a whopping 130 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO). And if you think SLS looks a bit like the Space Shuttle, you’re not wrong, as the system borrows heavily from the now-retired program. The heavy-lift rocket will be integral to the Artemis program, which seeks to return astronauts to the Moon later this decade and possibly Mars in the late 2030s.
NASA’s SLS is huge, but SpaceX’s upcoming Starship is even bigger. Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, says the fully stacked version of the rocket, consisting of a Starship upper stage and Super Heavy booster stage, could launch as early as July, though certain regulatory hurdles still need to be met. SpaceX says Starship represents “a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond,” and that it will be the “world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tonnes to [low] Earth orbit.” The fully stacked Starship stands 120 metres, making it the tallest rocket in history.
The upper stage is capable of making vertical landings on its own, but the booster, powered by 33 Raptor engines, will require a pair of arms, known as chopsticks, to assist with the landing at the launch tower. SpaceX is currently under contract with NASA to develop Starship as a human landing system for the upcoming Artemis lunar program. Looking even further ahead, Musk envisions Starship as the chosen vehicle for transporting thousands of colonists to Mars by mid-century, as unlikely as that sounds.
European Space Agency’s Vega-C
Another launch we’re expecting this year is the debut of the European Space Agency’s Vega-C rocket. The medium-lift rocket is expected to blast off from French Guiana as early as July 7. Vega features a single body with no booster, and is instead equipped with a trio of solid propulsion stages and a liquid propulsion upper module. The 35-metre rocket will deliver small satellites to orbit at relatively low cost. The rocket is a project of ESA, Arianespace, and the Italian Space Agency.
Arianespace’s Ariane 6
ESA and Arianespace are also working on the Ariane 6 rocket, which has been under development since 2014. The “overarching aim of Ariane 6 is to provide guaranteed access to space for Europe at a competitive price without requiring public sector support,” according to ESA. Once built, Ariane 6 should be capable of lifting 4.5 tons to Sun synchronous orbital (SSO) heights reaching 800 km, and upwards of 10.5 tons to geostationary transfer orbits (GEO). Ariane 6 was supposed to debut in 2020, but the rocket won’t launch any earlier than 2023.
Blue Origin’s New Glenn
Blue Origin, led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is currently working on a heavy-lift launcher called New Glenn. The company has been using its New Shepard rocket to launch paying customers to suborbital space, but New Glenn isn’t quite ready for prime time, nor will it be until at least 2023. Named after NASA astronaut John Glenn, the rocket will feature a reusable first stage that’s designed to last for 25 missions. The rocket will be powered by seven BE-4 engines and be capable of lifting 45 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) and 13 tons to GEO. The “single configuration heavy-lift launch vehicle” is being designed to carry “people and payloads routinely to Earth orbit and beyond,” according to Blue Origin.
ESA is eager to get in on the reusable rocket action. To that end, the agency’s Themis project seeks to test a reusable first stage prototype as early as 2023. In 2020, ArianeGroup was awarded the first contract worth 33 million euros to develop the demonstration rocket, which will be powered by the upcoming and low-cost methane-fuelled Prometheus engine.
United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur
ULA’s Vulcan Centaur is yet another heavy-lift launch vehicle that’s overdue, as it was originally supposed to fly in 2020 but is currently scheduled to debut in December of this year. The two-stage rocket will feature multiple configurations depending on the mission, including a basic stack capable of delivering 10.6 tons to LEO and a heavy configuration capable of delivering 27 tons to LEO. A Centaur V will comprise the rocket’s upper stage, while two BE-4 engines, built by Blue Origin, will power the first stage (delays in developing this super powerful methane engine is why the rocket has not yet flown).
“ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets have served as the backbone for American space launch for decades and our next-generation rocket will advance this rich heritage,” Tory Bruno, ULA CEO, said in a 2019 statement. “Vulcan Centaur will provide higher performance and greater affordability while continuing to deliver our unmatched reliability and precision.”
China’s Long March 9
China’s space program is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with. The country now boasts its own space station, and it’s currently managing a pair of robotic rovers, one on the Moon’s far side and one on Mars. Long March rockets 5 through 8 represent the current generation of Chinese heavy-lift rockets, but the proposed Long March 9 promises to be a total beast. The Long March 9 will stand 93 metres tall and be capable of lifting an eye-watering 140 tons to LEO or 50 tons to the Moon, according to SpaceNews. The Long March 9 will be to China what SLS is to NASA.
Russia’s proposed super-heavy rocket, named Yenisei, may or may not come into existence. Hard to know, but this thing is supposed to blast off in 2028. The Kremlin seems preoccupied at the moment with its ongoing and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but regardless, Russia’s space program is struggling badly. But that hasn’t stopped Russian space agency Roscosmos from at least dreaming of bigger and better things — like Yenisei.
According to state-run media outlet Tass, the future rocket will be 15 times more powerful than the medium-sized Soyuz-2 rocket, and feature a first stage capable of delivering 70 tons of cargo to low Earth orbit. Yenisei, as reported in Tass, might someday deliver 27 tons of cargo to the Moon. These capabilities and aspirations aside, Yenisei remains firmly situated in the realm of science fiction, at least for now.
A number of small- and medium-sized rockets are on the horizon, including Firefly Beta. The upcoming two-stage launch vehicle promises to “have lowest cost per [kilogram] to orbit of all launch vehicles in the 8,000 kg [17,600 pound] and under class,” according to the Texas-based private aerospace firm. The 60-metre rocket, with an expected first launch in 2024, will feature a payload capacity of 11 tons to a 200-km low Earth orbit. It will even be capable of reaching geosynchronous transfer orbits.
Relativity Space Terran R
In June 2021, California-based Relativity Space announced that it had raised $US650 ($902) million in funding for Terran R, a fully reusable and entirely 3D-printed launch vehicle. The two-stage rocket will stand 66 metres tall and be capable of launching 20 tons to low Earth orbit. Terran R will be powered by seven 3D-printed Aeon R rocket engines, each of which will be capable of 137,000 kg of thrust. Relativity Space’s proprietary 3D printing process “utilises software-driven manufacturing, exotic materials and unique design geometries that are not possible in traditional manufacturing,” according to a company statement. The rocket is expected to launch from Cape Canaveral no earlier than 2024.
We’d be remiss to exclude ESA’s Phoebus. It’s not a stand-alone rocket but rather a highly optimised upper stage that’ll be used on future versions of Ariane 6 and other rockets. Phoebus is expected to boost Ariane 6’s payload launch capacity to geostationary orbit by more than 2 tons and lower production costs.
ESA awarded contracts to MT Aerospace and ArianeGroup in May 2019 to develop the Phoebus prototype. Upper stages are typically made of aluminium, but Phoebus will use carbon composites, which will result in the lower cost and contribute to the added payload capacity.
Feel the rumble
I tried to be comprehensive here, but with so much happening in rocket development right now, I’m sure I missed something. Let me know in the comments if there’s an upcoming launch vehicle you’re excited about, so I can write about it next.