United Launch Alliance has unveiled radical plans to launch a reusable rocket named ‘Vulcan’ in 2019.
Vulcan will use new engines, mid-air recovery and a new upper stage aimed at enabling complex on-orbit manoeuvres.
The company appears to have timed the announcement to overshadow SpaceX’ launch of Falcon 9, which today hoped to prove that reusable rockets are viable.
The aim of both SpaceX and ULA is to end US dependence on Russian-built rocket engines, but the technology has so far proven difficult.
Russian-made RD-180 engines currently power ULA’s Atlas rocket, but Congress banned further imports as part of trade sanctions enacted after Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
ULA said the new rocket’s first stage will be powered by a pair of liquid-oxygen and liquefied methane engines under development by Blue Origin.
Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno told a news conference in Colorado that the engines will be designed to return to Earth, so they can be refurbished and reflown.
ULA’s plan is to skip returning the whole booster, an approach favoured by rival SpaceX.
It hopes to separate the engines after launch, inflate a heat shield around them and dispatch a helicopter to nab them mid-air.
Reusing the engines will enable ULA to cut launch costs to about $100 million for a medium-lift booster and about $200 million for heavy-lift variants.
This is roughly half the cost of ULA’s current Delta 4 Heavy rocket.
Initially, ULA will use its existing upper-stage Centaur engine but plans to introduce in 2023 an advanced motor that can recycle waste propellants.
This, it claims, will greatly extend its orbital lifetime and the number of missions it can perform.
‘We can take multiple satellites into orbit. We can put them in different planes,’ Bruno said.
‘When we get done with that, we can fly back to the space station. We can do all sorts of things. This is truly a game-changer.’
ULA also plans to reduce its launch pads from five to two, and offer a standardised menu of fixed launch prices, much like SpaceX, which posts its Falcon rocket pricing on its website.
Bruno declined to say how much Vulcan’s development will cost, but added such efforts typically run at least $2 billion.
ULA will use its own profits to bankroll the venture.
SpaceX, meanwhile, is also hoping to transform the rocket business. Today, it attempted to land the first-stage booster of a Falcon 9 rocket on a platform floating a few hundred miles off Florida’s northeastern coast, near Jacksonville.
The attempt didn’t go to plan, with the rocket booster tipped over after landing.
Despite being destroyed, the booster’s flyback marks an important step in the company’s quest to develop rockets that can be refurbished and reflown, potentially slashing launch costs.
SpaceX founder, Elon Musk’s plan is to reuse his booster rockets rather than discard them as is the custom around the world, to reduce launch costs.
First-stage boosters normally just slam into the Atlantic and sink.
‘This might change completely how we approach transportation to space,’ SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsman told reporters during a prelaunch press conference.