The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has entered the reusable launcher race with its Next Generation Launch System (NGLS), also known as the Vulcan rocket. This replacement for the current generation of launch systems will incorporate a rocket engine assembly that jettisons from the first stage and is snared in mid-air by a helicopter after reentering the Earth's atmosphere.
Unveiled at the 31st Space Symposium, the Vulcan was named by popular vote last month that garnered one million entries. According to ULA, the new launch system will be able to deliver payloads to low-Earth orbit and deep space at reduced cost.
At the heart of the Vulcan is ULA's Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) initiative. Unlike the SpaceX Falcon 9, which is designed to fly back to the launch site, the SMART initiative involves developing an engine assembly that reuses the booster main engines. The assembly uses twin BE-4 engines burning methane and liquid oxygen, producing 1.1 million lb of thrust. The BE-4 was developed by Blue Origin, which is providing the engines to ULA in a partnership to replace the Russian-made RD-180.
In flight, the Vulcan lifts off like a conventional system, but after releasing its payload, the first-stage booster engine assembly detaches and re-enters atmosphere using an inflatable heat shield. After parachute deployment, the booster engine assembly is hooked and captured by a Chinook helicopter. The assembly is then recertified and reattached to a new Vulcan first stage. ULA says that this results in a 90 percent savings in propulsion costs because the engine assembly makes up 25 percent of the booster weight and 65 percent of the booster cost.
The American-made Vulcan is based on the Atlas and Delta launch vehicles and will use ULA's Centaur second stage with either a 4- or 5-m (13/16 ft) payload fairing and four to strap-on solid boosters on the first stage. In the Stage Two version, the Centaur will be replaced by a new, more powerful Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES); giving the Vulcan the lift capability of the Delta IV Heavy rocket. ULA says that the ACES can make almost unlimited burns, so its on-orbit time extends from hours to weeks
"More capabilities in space mean more capabilities here on Earth," says Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance. "Because the Next Generation Launch System will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market, it will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space. Whether it is scientific missions, medical advancements, national security or new economic opportunities for businesses, ULA’s new Vulcan rocket is a game-changer in terms of creating endless possibilities in space."
The video below introduces the Vulcan.