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Comparison of NASA Orbital Launch Systems

By , Friday 6th December 2013 in Sky at Night

A visual comparison of NASA orbital launch vehicles from Pegasus to the new Space Launch System.

This infographic illustrates the comparative height of the various NASA orbital launch vehicles since 1980.

Comparison of NASA Launch Vehicles
Comparison of NASA Launch Vehicles

Pegasus (1990-2013)

The Pegasus rocket is an air-launched winged space launch vehicle capable of carrying small, unmanned payloads (443 kilograms (977 lb)) into low Earth orbit. It became operational in 1990 and remains so as of 2013. It is air-launched, as part of an expendable launch system developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital). Three main stages burning solid propellant provide the thrust. It flies as a rocket-powered aircraft before leaving the atmosphere.

The Pegasus is carried aloft below a carrier aircraft and launched at approximately 40,000 ft (12,000 m). The carrier aircraft provides flexibility to launch the rocket from anywhere rather than just a fixed pad. A high-altitude, winged flight launch also allows the rocket to avoid flight in the densest part of the atmosphere where a larger launch vehicle, carrying more fuel, would be needed to overcome air friction and gravity.

  • Mass: 18,500 kg (Pegasus), 23,130 kg (Pegasus XL)
  • Length: 16.9 m (Pegasus), 17.6 m (Pegasus XL)
  • Diameter: 1.27 m
  • Wing span: 6.7 m
  • Payload: 443 kg (1.18 m diameter, 2.13 m length)

Taurus 1994-2012)

Taurus is a four stage, solid fuel launch vehicle built in the United States by Orbital Sciences Corporation. It is based on the Pegasus rocket. The Taurus rocket is able to carry a payload of around 1,350 kg into a low Earth orbit.

First launched in 1994, it has successfully completed six out of a total of nine military and commercial missions. Three of the last four launches have ended in failure, including the February 24, 2009 launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission and the March 4, 2011 launch of the Glory mission. The failure of the two latest launches resulted in losses totalling $700 million for NASA, not including cost of the rockets themselves.

  • Mass: 73,000 kg
  • Length: 27.9 m
  • Diameter: 2.35 m
  • Payload: 1,320 kg

Athena II (1998-1999)

The Athena II is a four stage rocket, consisting of solid first, second and third stages, and a monopropellant liquid-fuelled fourth stage. Athena was used for three launches between 1998 and 1999, and was scheduled to return to service in 2012.

The first launch of the Athena II rocket was the first to take place from Spaceport Florida, and successfully placed the Lunar Prospector spacecraft into orbit. The next Athena II launch took place from SLC-6 at Vandenberg on 27 April 1999, with the Ikonos satellite for Space Imaging. The launch ended in failure after the payload fairing failed to separate, and as a result the rocket had too much mass to achieve orbital velocity. The third launch also took place from SLC-6 at Vandenberg, on 24 September 1999. The payload, Ikonos 1, was also for Space Imaging, and successfully reached orbit.

  • Mass: 120,700 kg
  • Length: 28.2 m
  • Diameter: 2.36 m
  • Payload: 2,065 kg

Delta II (1989-2011)

Deltas are expendable launch vehicles, which means they can only be used once. Delta II is an American space launch system, originally designed and built by McDonnell Douglas. Delta II is part of the Delta rocket family and entered service in 1989. Delta II vehicles included the Delta 6000, the Delta 7000, and two 7000 variants ("Light" and "Heavy").

As of October 2011, Delta IIs have successfully launched 149 projects, including several NASA missions to Mars.

  • Mass: 151,700 - 231,870 kg
  • Length: 38.2 - 39 m
  • Diameter: 2.44 m
  • Payload: 2,700 - 6,100 kg

Titan II SLV (1988-2003)

Titan II SLV was an American expendable launch system derived from the LGM-25C Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile. Retired Titan II missiles were converted into two stage rockets to carry payloads for the United States Air Force, NASA and NOAA.

A contract to refurbish fourteen Titan II missiles to the Titan 23G configuration was awarded to Martin Marietta in January 1986. The first launch occurred on 5 September 1988, carrying a classified payload for the US National Reconnaissance Office. Thirteen were launched, with the fourteenth going to the Evergreen Aviation Museum. The final flight occurred on 17 October 2003, carrying a DMSP satellite.

  • Mass: 117,020 kg
  • Length: 31.4 m
  • Diameter: 3.05 m
  • Payload: 3,600 kg

Atlas II (1991-1998)

Atlas II was a member of the Atlas family of launch vehicles, which evolved from the successful Atlas missile program of the 1950s. Atlas II was the last Atlas to use a three engine, "stage-and-a-half" design: two of its three engines were jettisoned during ascent, but its fuel tanks and other structural elements were retained. It was designed to launch payloads into low earth orbit, geosynchronous transfer orbit or geosynchronous orbit. Sixty-three launches of the Atlas II, IIA and IIAS models were carried out between 1991 and 2004.

Atlas II provided higher performance than the earlier Atlas I by using engines with greater thrust and longer fuel tanks for both stages.

  • Mass: 204,300 kg
  • Length: 47.54 m
  • Diameter: 3.04 m
  • Payload: 6,580 kg

Atlas IIIA (2000-2005)

The Lockheed Martin Atlas III was an American orbital launch vehicle, used between 2000 and 2005. It was the first member of the Atlas family since the Atlas A to feature a "normal" staging method, compared to the previous Atlas family members, which were equipped with jettisonable engines on the first (sustainer) stage.

All Atlas III launches were made from Space Launch Complex 36B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Atlas III made its sixth and last flight on February 3, 2005, with a classified payload for the United States National Reconnaissance Office.

  • Mass: 214,338 kg
  • Length: 52.8 m
  • Diameter: 3.05 m
  • Payload: 8,640 - 10,218 kg

Titan IV (1997-2005)

The Titan IV family, including the IVA and IVB, of space boosters were used by the U.S. Air Force. They were launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. At the time of its introduction, the Titan IV was the largest unmanned space booster used by the Air Force.

The Titan IV was the last of the Titan family of rockets. It was retired in 2005 due to its high cost of operation. The final launch (B-30) from Cape Canaveral AFS occurred on April 29, 2005, and the final launch from Vandenberg AFB occurred on October 19, 2005.

  • Mass: 943,050 kg
  • Length: 44 m
  • Diameter: 3.05 m
  • Payload: 21,680 kg

Space Shuttle (1981-2011)

The Space Shuttle was a crewed, partially reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft operated by NASA. Its official program name was Space Transportation System, taken from a 1969 plan for a system of reusable spacecraft of which it was the only item funded for development. The first of four orbital test flights occurred in 1981, leading to operational flights beginning in 1982. It was used on a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011, launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Operational missions launched numerous satellites, interplanetary probes, and the Hubble Space Telescope; conducted science experiments in orbit; and participated in construction and servicing of the International Space Station.

  • Mass: 2,027,560 kg
  • Length: 56.1 m
  • Diameter: 8.7 m
  • Payload: 24,400 kg

Atlas V (2002-Present)

Atlas V is an active expendable launch system in the Atlas rocket family. Atlas V was formerly operated by Lockheed Martin, and is now operated by the Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture United Launch Alliance. Each Atlas V rocket uses a Russian-built RD-180 engine burning kerosene and liquid oxygen to power its first stage and an American-built RL10 engine burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to power its Centaur upper stage.

In its more than three dozen launches, starting with its maiden launch in August 2002, Atlas V has had a near-perfect success rate. One flight on June 15, 2007, NRO L-30, experienced an upper-stage anomaly when the engine in the vehicle's Centaur upper stage shut down four seconds early, leaving the payload—a pair of naval signals intelligence satellites—in a lower than intended orbit. However, the customer, the National Reconnaissance Office, categorized the mission as a success.

  • Mass: 334,500 kg
  • Length: 58.3 m
  • Diameter: 3.81 m
  • Payload: 9,370–29,400 kg

Delta IV (2002-2013)

Delta IV is an active expendable launch system in the Delta rocket family. Delta IV uses rockets designed by Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems division and built in the United Launch Alliance (ULA) facility in Decatur, Alabama. Final assembly is completed at the launch site by ULA.

The rockets were designed to launch payloads into orbit for the United States Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program and commercial satellite business. Delta IV rockets are available in five versions: Medium, Medium+ (4,2), Medium+ (5,2), Medium+ (5,4), and Heavy, which are tailored to suit specific payload size and weight ranges. Delta IV was primarily designed to satisfy the needs of the U.S. military.

  • Mass: 249,500 - 733,400 kg
  • Length: 63 - 72 m
  • Diameter: 5 m
  • Payload: 8,600-22,560 kg

Space Launch System

The Space Launch System (SLS) is a United States Space Shuttle derived heavy launch vehicle being designed by NASA. It follows the cancellation of the Constellation Program, and is to replace the retired Space Shuttle.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 envisions the transformation of the Ares I and Ares V vehicle designs into a single launch vehicle usable for both crew and cargo.

The SLS launch vehicle is to be upgraded over time with more powerful versions. Its initial Block I version, without an upper stage, is to lift a payload of 70 metric tons to orbit. The final Block II version with an integrated upper Earth Departure Stage is to have, depending on the configuration, a payload lift capability of at least 130 metric tons to low earth orbit, 12 metric tons above that of Saturn V, which would make the SLS the most capable heavy lift vehicle ever built.

  • Mass: 979,452 kg
  • Length: 97 - 117 m
  • Diameter: 8.4 m
  • Payload: 70,000 to 130,000 kg

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About the Author

Tim Trott

Tim is a professional software engineer, designer, photographer and astronomer from the United Kingdom. You can follow him on Twitter to get the latest updates.

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