A Chinese official named Wan Hu, as the story goes, became the first human to visit the moon. His underlings fastened 47 large bamboo rockets to the base of his wicker chair, lit them and ran for cover. After an explosion and puff of smoke, Wan Hu had vanished, supposedly arriving safely in his seat on the moon. Whether or not this story is based in fact, it is true that Wan Hu has inspired generations with his heroics. A statue of him was even erected at the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, which later became the departure site of China’s first lunar mission, Chang’e 1, in 2007.
We often look to the past when we reach for the future. There have been significant advances in rocket technology in recent years and many more are on the horizon. In part one for this series on rocket technology, we focused on the existing heavy-lifting rockets available in 2018. In this part, we will focus on the technologies that are just around the corner and will become available in the next 5-10 years. Here then, are the top rocket companies and vehicles to look out for in the coming decade.
Organization: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology
Vehicle: The Long March 9
The Long March 9 (LM-9) or Changzheng 9 (CZ-9) is the next generation of super-heavy rocket that is under development by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology. Its planned maximum payload is 140,000 kg to LEO, larger than any rocket that has ever been built. Although it is not planned to launch until 2028 around 70% of the components needed for construction are currently being tested and they expect the first engine tests to take place by 2018.
The Long March 9 is slated to be the primary vehicle for a Chinese lunar landing in the early 2030s.
Organization: Firefly Aerospace
Vehicle: Alpha 2
Even though Firefly Aerospace is one of the newer players on the market, they have already begun testing the engines for their small and medium-sized launch vehicles. The Texas-based firm strongly supports NewSpace, a movement that is increasing private access to space by reducing launch costs through innovation. They advocate loosening regulations surrounding space technology and lessening the dependence on national space institutions.
Their newest rocket, Alpha 2.0, doubled the payload over the previous version to 1000kg to LEO. While many of the major players in the industry are going larger, Firefly intends to cater to micro-satellites and cubesats that would normally have to negotiate (beg) for space as secondary payloads on larger launches. Because of their size, they are able to offer smaller clients the chance to be a primary payload for under $10 million per launch.
Organization: Airbus Defense and Space
The new Adeline (Advanced Expendable Launcher with Innovative engine Economy) is the first attempt by Airbus Defense and Space to develop a reusable, first-stage rocket engine. The concept is to have the first-stage engines detach from the rest of the rocket after firing and glide back to the launch pad using their own winglets and retractable airplane propellers. Once they have landed, they can be easily be refurbished and attached to another fuel tank for reuse. By doing so, Airbus claims they can significantly reduce costs by reusing 80% of the first stage’s economic value, without sacrificing payload weight.
The Adeline is in active development and scale models have been flown, however Airbus has not announced when they expect the Adeline to make its debut, as the Ariane 6 is currently their priority.
Organization: Blue Origin
Vehicle: New Glenn
The New Glenn is named after John Sheppard, the first American Astronaut to orbit the Earth. There are both two- and three-stage designs on the books that both use the same first stage, which is fully reusable. Blue Origin claims that it can be used up to 100 times and will land vertically, similar to the New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle they tested in 2015. It will be able to deliver nearly 45,000 kg (99,000 lbs) to low Earth orbit (LEO). Blue Origin has been very strict on trying to produce the lowest-cost vehicle. The first stage of New Glenn will burn cheaper, commercially available methane and liquid oxygen (LOX).
Blue Origin already has contracts signed for deliveries to LEO and GEO. The first one is a satellite delivery tentatively scheduled for 2020. Blue Origin has, from the beginning, openly announced its plans to open up space for tourism by providing tours to space and LEO. Space tourists will initially be serviced by the sub-orbital New Sheppard Rocket that has already flown multiple test flights.
Organization: Airbus Safran Launchers
Vehicle: Ariane 6
The Ariane 6 has been under development since 2014 by the European Space Agency (ESA). There have been numerous controversies and questions surrounding the design, financing and contracting for the vehicle. In contrast to the Ariane 5, the Ariane 6 will only carry a single satellite, but promises to increase the payload, half the cost per launch, and double the number of launches that can be performed each year.
One significant feature to the design is the use of the Arianespace Vinci engine that is able to restart for the final stage. This would allow them to deliver satellites much closer to their intended operational orbits, potentially saving months off the time it takes to position a satellite in geostationary orbit.
It is hard to imagine a world without cars, or without airplanes, yet not long ago neither of these existed. Now they are part of our everyday lives. With so many people working to improve the technology of traveling through space it is not hard to imagine a time in the near future, where it may be just as common.
Just like Wan Hu inspired generations to reach for the stars, today’s visionaries are building the tools to carry us beyond our wicker chairs, so that thousands, and maybe millions or people can take their seats with him in the heavens.