A launch vehicle or carrier rocket is a rocket propelled vehicle used to carry a payload from Earth's surface to space, usually to Earth orbit or beyond. A launch system includes the launch vehicle, launch pad, vehicle assembly and fuelling systems, range safety, and other related infrastructure.
Orbital launch vehicles can be grouped based on many different factors, most notably payload mass, although price points are a major concern for some users. Most launch vehicles have been developed by or for national space programs, with considerable national prestige attached to spaceflight accomplishments. Payloads include crewed spacecraft, satellites, robotic spacecraft, scientific probes, landers, rovers, and many more.
Orbital spaceflight is difficult and expensive, with progress limited by the underlying technology as much as human and societal factors.
Mass to orbit
Launch vehicles are classed by NASA according to low Earth orbit payload capability:
- Small-lift launch vehicle: < 2,000 kilograms (4,400 lb) - e.g. Vega
- Medium-lift launch vehicle: 2,000 to 20,000 kilograms (4,400 to 44,100 lb) - e.g. Soyuz ST
- Heavy-lift launch vehicle: > 20,000 to 50,000 kilograms (44,000 to 110,000 lb) - e.g. Ariane 5
- Super-heavy lift vehicle: > 50,000 kilograms (110,000 lb) - e.g. Saturn V
Orbital spaceflight requires a satellite or spacecraft payload to be accelerated to very high velocity. In the vacuum of space, reaction forces must be provided by the ejection of mass, resulting in the rocket equation. The physics of spaceflight are such that multiple rocket stages are typically required to achieve the desired orbit.
Expendable launch vehicles are designed for one-time use, with boosters that usually separate from their payload and disintegrate during atmospheric reentry or on contact with the ground. In contrast, reusable launch vehicle boosters are designed to be recovered intact and launched again. The Falcon 9 is an example reusable launch vehicle.
Launch platform locations
A launch vehicle will start off with its payload at some location on the surface of the Earth. To reach orbit, the vehicle must travel vertically to leave the atmosphere and horizontally to prevent re-contacting the ground. The required velocity varies depending on the orbit but will always be extreme when compared to velocities encountered in normal life.
Launch vehicles provide varying degrees of performance. For example, a satellite bound for Geostationary orbit (GEO) can either be directly inserted by the upper stage of the launch vehicle or launched to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). A direct insertion places greater demands on the launch vehicle, while GTO is more demanding of the spacecraft. Once in orbit, launch vehicle upper stages and satellites can have overlapping capabilities, although upper stages tend to have orbital lifetimes measured in hours or days while spacecraft can last decades.
Distributed launch involves the accomplishment of a goal with multiple spacecraft and launches. An assembly of modules, such as the International Space Station, can be constructed, or in-space propellant transfer conducted to greatly increase the delta-V capabilities of a given stage. Distributed launch enable space missions that are not possible with single launch architectures.
Mission architectures for distributed launch were explored in the 2000s and launch vehicles with integrated distributed launch capability built in began development in 2017 with the Starship design. The standard Starship launch architecture is to refuel the spacecraft in low Earth orbit to enable the craft to send high-mass payloads on much more energetic missions.
- See for example: "NASA Kills 'Wounded' Launch System Upgrade at KSC". Florida Today. Archived from the original on 2002-10-13.
- NASA Space Technology Roadmaps - Launch Propulsion Systems, p.11: "Small: 0-2t payloads, Medium: 2-20t payloads, Heavy: 20-50t payloads, Super Heavy: >50t payloads"
- "Launch services—milestones". Arianespace. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
- "Welcome to French Guiana" (PDF). arianespace.com. Arianespace. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
- HSF Final Report: Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation, October 2009, Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, p. 64-66: "5.2.1 The Need for Heavy Lift ... require a “super heavy-lift” launch vehicle ... range of 25 to 40 mt, setting a notional lower limit on the size of the super heavy-lift launch vehicle if refueling is available ... this strongly favors a minimum heavy-lift capacity of roughly 50 mt ..."
- Lindsey, Clark (28 March 2013). "SpaceX moving quickly towards fly-back first stage". NewSpace Watch. Retrieved 29 March 2013.
- Kutter, Bernard; Monda, Eric; Wenner, Chauncey; Rhys, Noah (2015). Distributed Launch - Enabling Beyond LEO Missions (PDF). AIAA 2015. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
- Chung, Victoria I.; Crues, Edwin Z.; Blum, Mike G.; Alofs, Cathy (2007). An Orion/Ares I Launch and Ascent Simulation - One Segment of the Distributed Space Exploration Simulation (DSES) (PDF). AIAA 2007. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
- Foust, Jeff (29 September 2017). "Musk unveils revised version of giant interplanetary launch system". SpaceNews. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
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- Time lapse captured from a satellite of a rocket carrying 35 satellites