By Prasad Ganti
Recently, SpaceX’s rocket Falcon 9 blew up on the launch pad, after having had several successes with Falcon 9 in the past. A further failure last year was reported when its rocket blew up in space. Regardless, the company has been successful and is a good example of a private enterprise making it into the space launching business, thereby breaking the monopoly enjoyed by NASA.
Blue Origin, the company launched by Jeff Bezos, the founding CEO of Amazon, has lofty ambitions and announced their New Glenn Stage 2 and Stage 3 rocket. Notwithstanding the taunts Bezos was throwing at SpaceX’s failure, the future bodes well for both companies, as well as Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares and Paul Allen’s Vulcan rockets.
A multitude of rockets make me ask the question of what are the differences between them. In terms of size, power, capabilities etc. For instance, how is the BMW 700 series of cars different than the 300 series ? Also, how is Boeing 777 different than 747 or Airbus A380 different than 320 ? I saw a picture published by Blue Origin showing the different rockets standing next to each other. Given below is the picture which caught my imagination.
Clearly, Saturn V rocket which took Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts to the moon, stands head and shoulders above the others. Though the others are getting closer. The New Glenn rockets are next in the line. They represent the future and have not stood the test of the time yet. Delta IV heavy is next in line. It also has two solid booster rockets strapped to it. It is used to launch heavy payloads into space.
Falcon Heavy is a powerful version of Falcon 9. The two solid rocket boosters attached to its sides indicate the power. Atlas V is currently in use while Vulcan is from the new venture promoted by Paul Allen, the founder of Microsoft. These two spaceships look comparable. Of course, the specifications do vary. Ariane 5 is the workhorse of the European Space Agency. Routinely launching commercial payloads from French Guiana in South America. Likewise Soyuz is the workhorse of Russia and has been in use for a long time now. Antares rocket from Orbital Sciences had some successes in the recent times, another private venture vying to get contracts from NASA.
Other than the sizes we have seen here, they differ in terms of the engines used, the number of stages employed, and the fuel utilized etc. Solid rocket boosters use solid fuel which produces more push per pound than the liquid fuels. But it is difficult to stop once lit. Hence it used in the first stage of a rocket. Liquid fuels are more controllable and used in the later stages of a rocket burn cycle. Cryogenic engines generate more thrust per unit of fuel and are used as the final stage to deliver heavy payload into the space.
Though not shown in the picture, other countries have rockets too like China, Japan and India. Rocket launches are becoming more democratic: both amongst countries as well as companies. Still Rocket Science is hard and unforgiving as the recent disasters prove. But the future seems to be bright for space launches.