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June 24, 2024

United Launch Alliance Delays Inaugural Vulcan Centaur Rocket Launch to January

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Dec 11, 2023

Wet dress rehearsal completed, but software issues push first flight to next month

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has announced that the first launch of their new Vulcan Centaur rocket will be delayed from the planned December 24 date out of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The maiden flight was originally targeting a Christmas Eve liftoff to deliver two commercial satellites into a geosynchronous transfer orbit. However, additional time is needed to complete software validation on the new launch vehicle.

ULA did successfully complete a wet dress rehearsal last week, taking the rocket through a full launch countdown culminating in engine ignition tests. The Vulcan Centaur and its two Northrop Grumman-built solid rocket boosters were loaded with propellants and pressurized to confirm the integrity of the systems.

“We accomplished a great deal during the WDR, however we did identify a condition during that test that requires further software validation,” said Tory Bruno, President and CEO of ULA. “I have directed the team to stand down on the countdown to further analyze the data and complete that validation before our first launch.”

With the inaugural mission now targeting a launch in January, ULA will be working through the holiday season to complete final checkouts. The early January launch window will open on January 1 and extend for over three weeks.

New rocket to replace Atlas and Delta workhorses

The Vulcan Centaur is ULA’s new medium- and heavy-lift rocket, slated to replace their venerable Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles. It has been over six years in development to lower costs and incorporate new technologies like reusable engines.

“Vulcan Centaur provides higher performance and greater affordability while continuing to deliver our unmatched reliability and precision,” said Bruno. Over $1 billion was invested jointly between ULA, Blue Origin, and the US Air Force to design and qualify America’s next generation launch vehicle.

Specification Vulcan Centaur
Height 192 ft
Diameter 17 ft
Mass Over 549,000 lb
Payload to LEO 59,500 lb
Engines 2 BE-4
Boosters 0-6 GEM 63XL

The most visible new feature on Vulcan is its two BE-4 engines, built by Blue Origin. They burn liquified natural gas and oxygen rather than the tried and true RP-1 kerosene. Up to six solid rocket boosters from Northrop Grumman can augment the first stage, customized per mission.

An expendable Centaur upper stage provides the final push to orbit, though future variants will make it reusable. The 5.4 meter payload fairing on top protects satellites during atmospheric ascent.

“Vulcan Centaur will revolutionize space by providing critical launch services for America’s constellations, NASA science missions and US national security payloads,” said Bruno. “As programs evolve, this rocket has the flexibility and capabilities to carry those missions successfully now and into the future.”

Inaugural flight to deliver two communications satellites

For its first launch out of Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41, Vulcan will be delivering two commercial communications satellites. The larger ABS-3 satellite is owned by Asia Broadcast Satellite in Bermuda, while the smaller Janus-1 belongs to Northrop Grumman as a prototype for the Space Development Agency.

The two spacecraft will be deployed sequentially into a highly elliptical geosynchronous transfer orbit, where their onboard propulsion can circularize the orbit over the equator. From there they can move to operational slots and deploy solar arrays, antennas, and other appendages.

Janus-1 is a small experimental satellite demonstrating new technologies in space-based infrared tracking and advanced maneuvering. If successful, it will help inform the National Defense Space Architecture for next generation missile warning and missile defense.

ABS-3 is a Boeing 702SP satellite platform with C-band, Ku-band, and Ka-band transponders to provide video distribution and data services over the Americas, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Its customers include global broadcasters and governments needing resilient communications.

Major transition upcoming for national security launches

The Vulcan Centaur will also serve critical national security launch needs, set to take over missions currently launching on Atlas V. ULA holds a long track record of successful launches for the Space Force and other government customers.

“ULA’s success is unmatched in our industry – 222 consecutive, successful missions and counting,” said Bruno. “We remain steadfast in continuing that legacy of unmatched reliability and performance for many years to come.”

In 2023 ULA will still fly five Atlas V missions, rapidly transitioning national security customers to Vulcan in 2024 and beyond. The maiden Vulcan mission was originally meant to demonstrate readiness before the first Space Force flights.

“We will take the time necessary to ensure the safety and integrity of flight and successfully deliver this important capability to the nation,” said Bruno. The early January launch window provides some padding if any other issues crop up.

With its BE-4 engines made in the USA and strategic independence from overseas suppliers, Vulcan Centaur can provide assured access to space for the Department of Defense. ULA continues to emphasize it is the most experienced and reliable launch provider for crucial national security payloads.

Path forward after inaugural launch

Once Vulcan Centaur successfully reaches orbit on its first flight, ULA will move towards ramping up launch cadence over 2023. The second Vulcan mission is scheduled for May 2 out of Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Later Vulcan flights this year include NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission and the first Space Force-led national security mission. At least six more Vulcan launches are on the manifest for 2023 as rocket production picks up speed. Qualifying the human-rated variant to launch astronauts will also be a priority.

ULA is still working towards the first flight of the SMART reuse system to recover Vulcan’s BE-4 engines by helicopter mid-air capture. A demonstration is planned for late 2024 over the Atlantic Ocean. Full reusability could drastically lower costs for ULA and Blue Origin.

The Vulcan Centaur rocket represents a major new capability for the launch industry, bringing next generation technologies to support critical economic and defense payloads. All eyes will be on Cape Canaveral in January when America’s new workhorse rocket finally takes flight.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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