United Launch Alliance introduces the Vulcan, its new, reusable rocket

The company also unveiled the Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) initiative, which will be introduced into NGLS and allow ULA to reuse the booster main engines via mid­air capture.

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United Launch Alliance (ULA, Centennial, CO, USA) unveiled its new rocket, the Vulcan, during the 31st Space Symposium. The Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) brings together decades of experience on ULA’s Atlas and Delta vehicles, to produce the American made rocket that will enable mission success from low Earth orbit all the way to Pluto. Last month, ULA launched an online naming competition that allowed Americans to vote on their favorite name for the NGLS. More than one million votes were cast, and Vulcan was the top choice.

Last year, ULA announced that it had partnered with Blue Origin, (Kent, WA, USA) a privately funded aerospace company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, to provide an engine for the NGLS while also providing an alternative to the Russian­made RD­180. This collaboration to fund the development of a new, U.S.­-made BE­4 rocket engine. The BE­4 is designed for low recurring cost and will meet commercial and NASA requirements as well as those of the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The BE­4 uses low­cost liquid natural gas fuel and is designed for reuse.

The company also unveiled the Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) initiative, which will be introduced into NGLS and allow ULA to reuse the most expensive portion of the first stage – the booster main engines – via mid­air capture. This allows a controlled recovery environment providing the confidence needed to re­ fly the hardware.

Step one of NGLS will consist of a single booster stage, the high energy Centaur second stage and either a 4­ or 5­m diameter payload fairing. Up to four solid rocket boosters (SRB) augment the lift off power of the 4­m configuration, while up to six SRBs can be added to the 5­m version.

In step two, the Centaur second stage will be replaced by the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), making the NGLS capability that of today’s Delta IV Heavy rocket. ACES can execute almost unlimited burns, extending on orbit operating time from hours to weeks.

“More capabilities in space mean more capabilities here on earth,” said Tory Bruno, president and CEO of ULA. “Because the Next Generation Launch System will be the highest­performing, most cost­efficient 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 game­changer in terms of creating endless possibilities in space.”