BREAKING: New Vulcan Centaur Rocket Successfully Launched

By Allyson Park and Stew Magnuson

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United Launch Alliance successfully sent its new Vulcan Centaur rocket to space in the early hours of Jan. 8, the first of two first certification missions that will maintain competition for U.S. national security space.

Designed by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the rocket is intended to replace the company’s two current rockets, the Atlas V and the Delta IV, and to present a challenge to SpaceX’s domination of the national security space launch market.

It was lofted at 2:18 a.m. eastern standard time from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

Brig. Gen. Kristin L. Panzenhagen, Space Systems Command’s program executive officer for Assured Access To Space, and commander of the 45th Space Launch Delta in a statement said the launch will help assure the national security sector has assured access to space. “This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of technical collaboration and partnership to field a new launch system for the United States.”

ULA was reliant on Russian-made RD-180 engines for heavy launches on its Atlas rockets, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 spurred Congress to write legislation forcing the company pivot. Afterwards, ULA chose Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines, which suffered several developmental delays. The first two BE-4 engines were delivered in late 2022. Unlike Space X’s series of Falcon rockets, however, ULA’s new launch system is not reusable.

Panzenhagen said, “Today’s launch marks a new space launch capability that will complete the Department of Defense’s transition from foreign engines and ensure the Joint Force’s ability to achieve space superiority when necessary while also maintaining the safety, security, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain.”

Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO, in a statement said: “Vulcan’s inaugural launch ushers in a new, innovative capability to meet the ever-growing requirements of space launch. Vulcan will provide high performance and affordability while continuing to deliver our superior reliability and orbital precision for all our customers across the national security, civil and commercial markets. Vulcan continues the legacy of Atlas as the world’s only high-energy architecture rocket.”

ULA has sold more than 70 Vulcan launches to date, including 38 missions for Amazon’s Project Kuiper and multiple national security space, the statement added.

This lineup includes four additional Vulcan launches in 2024 carrying Space Force payloads to orbit, according to media reports.

Initial takeoff was originally scheduled for Dec. 24, but an explosion on March 29 that destroyed the upper stage of a rocket pushed the date back to Jan. 8.

The second certification launch would be at the earliest in April, following at least 60 days of review after the first certification launch. This launch will carry Sierra Space’s uncrewed cargo spacecraft, Dream Chaser, for its first mission to the International Space Station.

The Vulcan Centaur rocket features the first use of Northrop Grumman’s Graphite Epoxy Motor solid rocket booster. At over 72 feet long and 63 inches in diameter, the GEM 63XL is the “longest monolithic SRB ever produced for flight,” Northrop Grumman reported in a press release.

Manufactured as a single piece to ensure improved reliability and efficiency, the GEM 63XL can deliver over 463,000 pounds of thrust “to enhance the capabilities of rockets launching the nation’s most critical payloads.”

The first certification mission Jan. 8 included two payloads. The first is the Peregrine Lunar Lander for Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. The second is the Celestis Memorial Spaceflights deep space Voyager mission, known as the Enterprise Flight, according to a ULA product page.

Topics: Defense Department

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