Catch up with the "rocket king": Musk's top competitors

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Catch up with the "rocket king": Musk's top competitors
Catch up with the "rocket king": Musk's top competitors

Founded by Elon Musk, SpaceX has firmly established itself as the technological leader of the global rocket and space industry. But competitors are in no hurry to fly a white flag. Who will be able to push the "Falcon" off the pedestal?


Vulcan: Save the Most Valuable

The United Launch Alliance, or ULA, is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. It is this company that produces the Delta-4 and Atlas-5 missiles. The problem is that these launch vehicles have long been inferior to the Falcon 9 in terms of efficiency. And Musk's reusable revolution can eventually finish off ULA altogether. Of course, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are not going to just sit back: this is not in the tradition of American business. Soon, in 2019, a new United Launch Alliance heavy-duty rocket called the Vulcan should be launched. Its main feature will be partial reusability. ULA does not want to save the entire first stage, as is the case with the Falcon 9, but only the engines. It looks like this: after launch, the unit with the first stage engines is separated from the launch vehicle and lands by parachute. And then it (the unit) will be "caught" by a helicopter and delivered to a safe place for subsequent re-launch.


This scheme has undeniable advantages: only the most important and most valuable is saved. SpaceX's concept with the landing of the entire first stage looks more impressive, but Musk's company is forced to leave some part of the fuel in the stage tanks to dampen the speed, braking upon entry into the atmosphere and a soft landing. This slightly reduces the mass of the payload, so that in theory the Vulcan can outperform the Falcon 9 in terms of economy. But this is in theory …


New Glenn: Battle of the Billionaires

If the Vulcan can be considered the most realistic competitor to the Falcon 9, then the promising New Glenn rocket is the loudest. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world who founded Amazon, is behind its development. Blue Origin, another Bezos company, is developing a new rocket. The rocket will be able to launch up to 45 tons of load into a low reference orbit. That is, in terms of its capabilities, New Glenn will be something in between the Falcon 9 and the recently launched Falcon Heavy. The brainchild of Jeff Bezos will become one of the most powerful modern missiles, which will be capable of a variety of missions.


But that's not the point. The main thing is that it will be partially reusable. And here the analogy with the Falcon 9 suggests the most direct one, because Blue Origin wants to return the entire first stage to Earth. She will sit upright. In this regard, they even presented a beautiful video.

Another feature of New Glenn (which, by the way, applies to the already reviewed "Vulcan") lies in the use of promising BE-4 engines. It is worth dwelling on this point in more detail. The fact is that this product will use methane as a fuel, and liquid oxygen as an oxidizing agent. This sets it apart from the Merlin kerosene / liquid oxygen engine used on the Falcon. In general, experts consider the methane / liquid oxygen pair the most promising in rocketry, providing reliability, efficiency and leaving engineers "room for maneuver" when designing rocket systems. This choice of fuel, combined with the return of the first stage, could help Bezos defeat Musk. But it cannot be said that the New Glenn concept will be a revolution, as the successful landing of the first stage of the Falcon 9 became a revolution in its time. Jeff Bezos, in general, follows the path already paved by Musk.


Adeline: the European answer

If Musk's American competitors may well catch up and even surpass SpaceX in the foreseeable future, then it will be much more difficult for Europeans to do this.The main hopes of the European Space Agency are associated with the promising "Ariane-6", but this is, in fact, just another one-time rocket, which "will not make the weather", although it will provide Europe with additional independence in terms of access to space.

In this regard, the most interesting thing is the Airbus project called Adeline. Moreover, it is very different from everything that was and is now on the market for rocket and space launches. Instead of aerodynamic lattice rudders and braking propulsion systems for landing a la SpaceX, the Adeline system will use wings and a pair of propellers to return to Earth.


This way, of course, it is possible to return, of course, not the entire rocket, but only the engines and part of the radio-electronic equipment, which is also a lot. In the end, the reusable unit lands on the airfield, like a conventional aircraft. In theory, the Adeline concept can be applied to a wide variety of missiles, including the aforementioned Ariane 6. In practice, everything is much more complicated: there is the issue of funding, and the lack of experience in creating reusable missiles. And, most importantly, Musk's relentless movement forward, who runs the risk of overtaking his competitors for many years, if not decades. Airbus plans to have the Adeline system ready for launches by 2025. By this time, SpaceX can already "arm" the promising mega-rocket (BFR) Big Falcon Rocket, which, as Musk himself said, "cannibalize" all other SpaceX rockets.

The Europeans also intend to test the Callisto reusable space rocket. This is a small program and will only use 1-2% of Ariane's budget. And the size of the rocket will be significantly inferior to the same Falcon 9, having only 13.5 meters in height and a meter in diameter. Callisto aims to test the reusable system as such. The findings will allow a more sensible assessment of the existing risks.

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"Soyuz-5": the last hope of Roscosmos

The plans of China and Russia look even more vague. The latter connects the main "space" hopes with the promising Soyuz-5 rocket, which will be either a "Russified" version of the Ukrainian Zenit, or a reincarnation of the Rus-M project within the framework of new realities. The developer is RSC Energia. It is known that Soyuz-5 will be a middle-class rocket using the RD-171MV engine (first stage) and two RD-0124M (second). This launch vehicle itself is not suitable for the lunar program due to its insufficient carrying capacity, but it may become the basis for a future super-heavy rocket. More importantly, the characteristics, in theory, would make the launch of the Soyuz-5 rocket relatively cheap: $ 55 million per launch. Thus, you can try to take away part of the market from Musk, although now this option seems to be more of a fantasy. Elon is doing very well.


This is probably why, in December 2017, it was announced that the development of a reusable version of Soyuz-5 was started. It was reported that unification with the disposable Soyuz would allow launching a future rocket from Baikonur, Vostochny, as well as from a floating cosmodrome in the Pacific Ocean under the Sea Launch program. At the same time, the Rocket and Space Corporation (RSC) Energia said that Roskosmos's technical task for the development of Soyuz-5 does not provide for the reusable use of this rocket or its individual elements. That is, Energia will carry out work on an initiative basis. It is important to say here that the lack of the necessary experience and a modern scientific and technical base is unlikely to allow us to get too close to the level of SpaceX. Domestic engineers, of course, had experience working on reusable systems: you can recall at least the Energy-Buran program. But it was a long time ago and a little from "another opera". Now "Buran" is not needed by anyone, and not just reusable, but also cheap missiles are needed.

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