A Parallel Adaptation: New Commercial Rockets for New Satellites

The design of the modern satellite has taken several different evolutionary paths during the past five years. They have both grown and shrunk. The variety of their capabilities has both expanded and become more specialized. We examine how launch service providers are investing to improve capabilities and the services they offer operators.

The methods in which satellites network with each other and form unique architectures have changed to serve today’s cultivated market with larger quantities of customers demanding higher quality services. Working alongside this evolution, the commercial launch industry also has advanced and developed new rocket technology to keep up with the needs of its operator clientele. And while the impetus of the satellite industry discussion on the launch sector has focused on pricing, increasing competition and reliability, operators and service providers now see launch provider business models spreading out to new markets based on the specific technology they’ve chosen to develop.

Operating out of the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, commercial launch service provider Arianespace is preparing for the inaugural flight of its lightweight Vega rocket. Arianespace, which generates a large portion of its business from its workhorse Ariane 5 launcher, began development on the Vega rocket in early 2003 within a European program organized under the aegis of the European Space Agency (ESA). The four-stage launcher represents the third rocket in Arianespace’s family of commercial vehicles and was envisioned and tailored to carry a growing number of small scientific spacecraft and other lighter-weight payloads under development worldwide with a payload capacity of 1,500 kilograms into polar orbit at 700 km altitude.

A P80 advanced solid propellant motor, featuring a novel filament-wound casing structure, powers Vega’s first stage. The second and third stages, designated Zefiro 23 and Zefiro 9, respectively, also use solid propellant motors, and the launcher is topped off by the bi-propellant liquid upper stage, which is called the Attitude and Vernier Upper Module (AVUM). The liftoff mass of Vega will be 139 metric tons.

Vega also was conceived in parallel with another medium-lift option and a revamped edition of the Russian veteran rocket, Soyuz. Arianespace’s Soyuz received tweaks and upgrades for its commercial service, while maintaining the key characteristics of a vehicle that has launched 1,700 manned and unmanned missions dating back to the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite.

“We did not make that many changes to the rocket,” says Arianespace CEO Jean-Yves Le Gall. “We added a new digital control system that incorporates both a digital computer and inertial measurement unit, which improves the rocket’s navigation accuracy and control capability. The new digital control system also provides a more flexible and efficient attitude control system — crucial for controlling the enlarged Soyuz ST payload fairing at a diameter of 4.11 meters and an overall length of 11.4 meters. The control system gives the rocket with the ability to perform in-flight roll maneuvers as well as in-plane yaw-steering maneuvers.”

The Soyuz’ first stage is composed of four boosters that are assembled around the launcher’s central core featuring tapered cylinders. The boosters’ RD-107A engines are liquid oxygen- and kerosene-powered — the same propellants used on each of the Soyuz’ three main stages. One Aerofin per booster and two movable vernier thrusters per booster encompass the rocket’s three-axis flight control.

Le Gall says his team believes that the market will continue to develop as new technology becomes available and that launchers will have to focus their efforts on keeping pace with variety. “The Soyuz and Vega give us far more flexibility when it comes to launching smaller satellites. The Soyuz will allow us to launch all the non-GTO satellites that we cannot launch on Ariane 5. There are a number of projects in Earth observation where Soyuz and Vega will be very important. The three launch systems allow Arianespace to provide a launch opportunity for any type of mission.” 


Other launch companies are adapting to the new size and shape of next-generation satellites. Operating from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, U.S.-Russian joint venture International Launch Services (ILS) has explored new technical possibilities with the exclusive rights it holds to the worldwide sale of the commercial Proton rocket. Two of the company’s most significant and recent Proton service contracts were signed to orbit European operator Eutelsat’s Ka-Sat and North American operator ViaSat’s ViaSat-1 spacecraft — two radically different models in terms of sheer size.

The concept of the Proton began as UR-500, a program under lead designer Vladimir Chelomei, who originally envisioned the spacecraft creating a powerful rocket for military payloads and a high-performance ICBM. The program changed during the course of its history, and the rocket was then developed exclusively for launching spacecraft. Proton also was the name of the first three payloads launched. Its first commercial launch came in April 1996. The first commercial launch of its current Proton M Breeze M model was in December 2002, when it orbited Nimiq-2 owned by Canadian operator Telesat.

ILS launched Eutelsat’s Ka-Sat in December of 2010. The 5.8-ton satellite was built by EADS Astrium and featured more than 80 spot beams that operate simultaneously, four multi-feed deployable antennas and a payload power of more than 11 kilowatts. The ViaSat-1 satellite was no less colossal in size or challenge. In addition to being the highest throughput satellite ever constructed with more than 130 Gbps — more than all other satellites over North America combined — it also weighs in at a massive 7.42 tons.

The mission plan for both satellites used similar techniques. The Proton M launch vehicle utilized a five-burn Breeze M mission design. A central tank containing an oxidizer, surrounded by six outboard fuel tanks, powered the first stage. Each fuel tank also carried one of the six RD-276 engines to provide first stage power. The second stage was powered by three RD-0210 engines and one RD-0211 engine, and the third was powered by one RD-0213 engine at a thrust of 583 Kilonewtons. Guidance, navigation and control of the Proton M during operation of the first three stages was carried out by a triple redundant closed-loop digital avionics system mounted in the Proton’s third stage.

In July, ILS also achieved its first shared payload Proton-M rocket launch by carrying the SES-3 and KazSat-2 telecommunications satellites into orbit. To increase the performance of its workhorse rocket, ILS upgraded its Breeze-M upper stage to a Phase 3 variant, which utilizes two high-pressure, 80-liter tanks to replace six smaller tanks and relocates command instruments towards the center of the spacecraft in order to mitigate the shock when the additional propellant tank is jettisoned.

ILS president Frank McKenna called the mission a milestone, dating back to the inaugural commercial launch of ILS Proton with SES’s Astra 1F satellite 15 years ago. “The first three stages of the Proton used a standard ascent profile to place the orbital unit payload into a sub-orbital trajectory. From this point in the mission, the Breeze M performed planned mission maneuvers to advance the orbital unit first to an elliptical parking orbit, then to an intermediate orbit, followed by a transfer orbit and finally to a geosynchronous transfer orbit,” says McKenna.


Other launch companies also have their sights set on big launches. In the United States, commercial launch service provider SpaceX, under the direction of CEO and CTO Elon Musk, unveiled the latest edition to its Falcon launch vehicle family in April — the Falcon Heavy.

According to Musk, the Merlin engine-powered Falcon Heavy rocket had been in development for years and was designed to carry more than 58 tons (117,000 pounds) of cargo into low-Earth orbit, surpassed only by NASA’s Saturn 5 rocket. “This is a rocket of truly huge scale,” Musk says of the Falcon Heavy. “We expect the first demonstration launch of the vehicle to take place at Vandenberg Air Force as early as 2013.”

The Falcon Heavy’s first stage will be made up of three nine-engine cores, which are the same used as the first stage of SpaceX’s medium-lift Falcon 9 launch vehicle. SpaceX upgraded the Merlin engines to power the new heavy-left rocket, which is currently being tested at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. While SpaceX initially will offer the Falcon Heavy for satellite launches, the vehicle was also designed to meet and exceed NASA human safety standards.

“Falcon 9 can only go to the International Space Station in [low-Earth orbit]. Falcon Heavy can go well beyond that. Our ultimate mission is to go to the moon and even Mars. We hope the rocket’s capacity will re-open spaceflight horizons that have faded over the decades,” says Musk. “We plan to combine the Falcon Heavy with our Dragon capsule to demonstrate a lunar flyby, as was done during NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968, as well as carrying a robotic mission to bring samples back from Mars. The payload of this Mars mission would be about a quarter of the size of a payload to LEO.”

SpaceX had already designed the Falcon 9 first stage to support the additional loads of this configuration, and with common structures and engines for both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the vehicle initially would be offered as an alternative to the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 vehicles developed under the U.S. military’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

Sea Launch

Some recent launch evolutions were the product of more critical financial circumstances. Sea Launch emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2010. Russian corporation Energia Overseas Ltd.’s (EOL) U.S. affiliate, Energia Logistics, was assigned to manage rocket assembly and satellite integration operations at the existing Sea Launch Home Port facilities. The successor entity, Sea Launch SARL now commands the Zenit-3SL launch system from its operations headquarters, while maintaining some assets at Sea Launch Home Port in Long Beach, Calif.

The first and second stages of the Sea Launch Zenit 3SL’s rocket components are manufactured in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. The third stage, which encompasses an Energia-produced Block DM-SL, is produced in Moscow. The rocket components are then assembled onboard the ACS in a below-decks factory area, where the third stage is joined with the first and second stages, all of which are fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen. The assembled rocket, approximately 200-feet high, then awaits its payload, which is housed in a Boeing-built compartment that measures 14 feet at its widest point. Sea Launch’s Zenit 3SL gives the company the ability to lift 6,000 kilograms into a geosynchronus transfer orbit.

Sea Launch’s legacy launcher, the Zenit-2, was developed and marketed to commercial customers during the late 1990s. The Zenit-2M, which is still set to replace the Zenit-2, incorporates enhancements that Sea Launch made during the development of the Zenit-3SL, but it is unclear whether any remain to be launched following the company’s post-bankruptcy emergence.

EOL spokesman Dennis Shomko explains why the company systematically analyzed its existing processes and operations, both internal and external. “For customers, that means transparency, reliability and predictability. We are confident that we can deliver a competitive level of ‘business comfort’ to them, while ensuring that our suppliers are managed appropriately.” 

China Great Wall

Since launching Eutelsat’s W3C satellite in October, the China Great Wall Industry Corp. (CGWIC) Long March rocket is hungry for more international business in the commercial sector. Fu Zhiheng, vice president and general manager of the Launch Services Division, CGWIC, says its continued investments in improving its services aims to create more flexibility for customers.

“A new fairing with a diameter of 4.2 meters, larger than the previously used 4.0 meters fairing, has been developed for the LM-3A series of launch vehicles, and flight proven with the LM-3B/ChinaSat-1A launch (GTO launch) on Sept. 19, 2011, which gives Long March more flexibility to accommodate larger satellite,” says Fu. “In the future, we are planning to upgrade the launch vehicle control system with higher reliability and injection accuracy. We are also studying the possibility to further enhance the GTO launch capability of Long March 3B, the workhorse with a maximum GTO capability of 5.5 tons currently.”

The launch services provider also is working on improvements to the overall infrastructure at its launch facility to support the development of the Long March launch vehicle. It is building a new launch site in Hainan. Fu adds that CGWIC’s new satellite processing facilities have been developed at the Xichang launch site, designed to enable parallel satellite launch campaigns. “More advanced software and hardware have been introduced to improve our research, design and manufacture capability,” he says. “We optimized the workflow at the launch site, which has significantly reduced the launch campaign duration.” According to Fu, it now only takes about 25 days for a Long March launch campaign.

CGWIC’s next-generation Long March-5 (LM-5) launch vehicles will use propellants such as liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen and kerosene. The payload capability of the new rocket is 25 tons for low-Earth orbit (LEO), and 14 tons for geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), while also capable of launching sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) satellites, space station and lunar probes. 

Orbital Sciences

For Orbital Sciences, and much like its competitors, the company is looking to evolve with the help of expanded government interest in commercial alternatives. Orbital’s OSP-2 Minotaur 4 SLV has been placed under the technical spotlight, combining elements of government-furnished decommissioned Peacekeeper boosters with technologies from its other rockets — the Pegasus, Taurus and OSP Minotaur. The vehicle consists of three Peacekeeper solid rocket stages — a commercial Orion 38 fourth stage motor and subsystems derived from established space launch boosters. Under a 10-year contract with the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Orbital will develop and operate the Minotaur 4 vehicle to launch U.S. government-funded satellites into low-Earth orbit.

The Minotaur 4 SLV incorporates a standard 92-inch fairing from its Taurus booster and supports dedicated or shared launch missions. The rocket is capable of boosting payloads more than 1,750 kilograms into orbit; the vehicle is compatible with multiple U.S. government and commercial launch sites. The Minotaur 4 also is designed to provide 18-month mission response including payload integration and launch by Orbital’s experienced launch crews.

The original Minotaur 4 launch vehicle made its debut in 2010 and, to-date, five successful missions have flown in three configurations from three different launch sites. Most recently, the second successful flight of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Hypersonic Test Vehicle in August 2011 utilized the Minotaur 4 Lite launch vehicle. This mission was followed closely by a Minotaur 4-Plus configuration in September that launched the TacSat-4 satellite for the U.S. Navy.

“The capability of the Minotaur 4 has helped us establish a history of support with the U.S. Air Force, with the newest member of the Minotaur launch vehicle family working for the operationally responsive TacSat program,” says Orbital’s executive vice president and general manager of Launch Systems Ron Grabe.

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