This is the first image of the new Vulcan rocket from United Launch Alliance

This is the first image of the new Vulcan rocket from United Launch Alliance

After ten years of preparation and testing, United Launch Alliance’s first Vulcan rocket finally took off on Friday and traveled 30 minutes to reach its launch pad in Florida.

This was the first time the full-size, 202-foot-tall (61.6-meter) Vulcan rocket has been seen in its entirety. The rocket has been enclosed under the scaffolding of ULA’s vertical hangar at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station since the company completed building it last month.

The Vulcan rocket and its mobile launch platform were moved to its launch pad beside the sea on Friday by the ground crew of ULA. It was one of the final procedures before Monday at 2:18 am EST (07:18 UTC) is when the Vulcan rocket gets cleared to launch. After an 11-hour countdown on Sunday afternoon, ULA engineers will assemble at a control center at Cape Canaveral to supervise the loading of liquid oxygen, hydrogen, and methane propellants into the Vulcan rocket.

Monday is the mission’s launch window, which ULA has 45 minutes to complete, with an 85% chance of favorable weather.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are ULA’s backup launch windows in case the rocket doesn’t lift off on Monday. Subsequently, the business would have to cease operations until January 23, a launch window limited by the cargo trajectory of the Vulcan rocket. On the first Vulcan trip, the main passenger is a commercial robotic Moon lander built by Astrobotic, a Pennsylvania-based business.

In the natural world

This is a significant time for ULA, a 50/50 joint company that was established in 2006 when the launch departments of Boeing and Lockheed Martin merged. According to Mark Peller, deputy president of Vulcan development at ULA, the Vulcan rocket is the literal embodiment of the company’s future. It will take the place of ULA’s fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets, which have a history that extends back to the early Space Age.”There was an opportunity to develop a new rocket that can do everything Atlas and Delta could do, but do it with even greater performance, and taking advantage of the latest technology,” Peller said Friday. “The system that we’ve developed, and we’re about to fly, is really positioning us for a very bright, prosperous future for many, many years to come.”

Officials at ULA determined they needed a new rocket that would be less expensive to construct and launch than the Atlas V and Delta IV due to fierce competition from SpaceX, which was still a startup in the launch industry ten years ago. The history of Vulcan has been chronicled by Ars; it includes litigation, a shift in the company’s leadership, delays, and failures. Most recently, there have been tidings that Boeing and Lockheed Martin are considering selling ULA.

The US military and Amazon purchased several Vulcan missions from ULA for their Project Kuiper internet network. Regarding the military, ULA has been able to rely on a regular stream of government contracts since the Pentagon wishes to have at least two independent launch providers capable of launching national security satellites into orbit.

Apart from SpaceX, which is its rival in the broadband satellite industry, Amazon secured launches with nearly all of the major Western launch companies. This also guaranteed ULA a large portion of work for the $10 billion Kuiper satellite network owned by Amazon.

The rocket made by Vulcan “has proven to already be an extremely competitive product in the marketplace, having an order book of over 70 missions before first flight, which is really unheard of,” Peller stated. “Thus, it represents our company’s future, and with Vulcan, we’re off to a great start on a really solid trajectory.”

However, it still needs to take off, and with Monday’s Vulcan test flight, ULA is risking its flawless mission success record.

“We have very rigorously gone through a qualification of Vulcan,” Peller said. “That stretched over several years, involved rigorous testing of the components, the subsystems, and the major elements of the rocket as well as testing here at the launch site.
“Many of the new systems that are flying on Vulcan had the benefit of being introduced on Atlas and Delta in recent years. So many of the systems that we’re flying here actually have a fair amount of flight experience under their belts,” he continued. “But … this is still the first time the vehicle has flown, and we will watch this very carefully and see what we learn from this. We’re going into this very high confidence. If there are any observations with the first flight, we’re prepared to respond and address those, and turn around quickly to fly again.”

Two Blue Origin BE-4 methane-fueled engines power the rocket’s first stage. These engines have never flown, even though they have undergone numerous ground tests.

The Centaur V, the upper stage of Vulcan, is an enhanced twin-engine variant of the single-engine variant that is launched on the Atlas V rocket. Though significantly larger, the Centaur V’s hydrogen-fueled RL10 engines are comparable in design to those that power every Atlas V and Delta IV rocket. Last year, during a ground test, one of the modified Vulcan upper stages detonated, causing ULA to postpone the rocket’s first flight for many months while engineers reinforced the Centaur’s stainless steel hydrogen tank.

Two strap-on solid-fueled boosters from Northrop Grumman are installed on this Vulcan rocket variant. Compared to the strap-on rockets on ULA’s earlier rockets, these boosters have a higher thrust. Future iterations of Vulcan rockets will be available with zero, two, four, or six solid rocket boosters, enabling ULA to tailor the vehicle’s lift capacity to the specific needs of each mission.

Vulcan’s greatest power will surpass that of the Delta IV Heavy, the biggest rocket in ULA’s current fleet. With a similar lift capacity to orbits at higher altitudes, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket can carry larger payloads into low-Earth orbit.

However, ULA’s Vulcan will be deployed as a completely disposable rocket. Although Peller stated on Friday that it will take a “few years” to start reusing engines, the business intends to progressively introduce an upgrade to recover and reuse the two BE-4 engines.

ULA reports that the primary goal is to properly certify the Vulcan rocket for use in the later part of this year to launch US military satellites. After the first Vulcan flight, which ULA refers to as “Cert-1,” Sierra Space’s commercial Dream Chaser spaceplane will be launched on a resupply mission to the International Space Station as early as April on a “Cert-2” mission.

The Space Force may approve the launch of national security payloads on Vulcan in the latter part of this year if those two launches proceed without a hitch.

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