Another heavy-lift launch vehicle we’re excited about is the two-stage Vulcan Centaur being developed by United Launch Alliance. The fully expendable 202-foot-tall (62-meter) rocket, in development since 2014, is set to replace ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, both of which have been in use for the past two decades. “The Vulcan Centaur Program was established by ULA to reduce cost, increase launch capability and provide the opportunity to partner with companies in the United States to develop rocket engines that eliminate reliance on the current Atlas V Russian-supplied RD-180 engines,” according to NASA.
The rocket’s first stage will get its power from two Blue Origin-built BE-4 methane-fueled engines. The booster can be assisted by as many as six Northrop Grumman Graphite Epoxy Motor solid rocket boosters. With all six SRBs in play, Vulcan Centaur should be able to lift 27.2 metric tons (60,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit and 6.5 metric tons (14,300 pounds) to geosynchronous orbit. (By comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can carry 22.8 metric tons to LEO.)
Vulcan’s first flight was supposed to happen in 2020, but a delay pushed it to 2022, which also didn’t happen. Excitingly, ULA now says it’s ready to light this candle, with a launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida scheduled for May 4. For this inaugural mission, the Vulcan will carry a lunar lander built by Astrobotic, a memorial capsule from Celestis, and a pair of demo Project Kuiper internet satellites for Amazon. Future launches include the first launch of the Dream Chaser spaceplane and several missions chartered under U.S. Space Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program.