Any spacecraft that can transport equipment such as satellites, experimentation equipment, and astronauts for human space missions from the surface of the Earth to space is referred to as a launch vehicle.
For a successful launch of any space mission, determining the payload capacity is crucial for the safety of spaceflights, as the overload of weight on the rockets can put stress on the suspension. The launch vehicle can become unbalanced and deviate from its intended trajectory if the rocket loads more than its calculated cargo capacity, sending it off course and into an accident. Consequently, the integration of the payload is crucial to the launch vehicle's overall safety.
Based on payload capacity, the launch vehicles can be broadly categorized into four main categories, i.e., small-lift vehicles, medium-lift vehicles, heavy-lift vehicles, and super-heavy lift vehicles. This article addresses the types of launch vehicles based on payload capacity and their uses in various missions.
Types of Launch Vehicles
According to their payload capacities, launch vehicles are divided into four main launch vehicle classes, i.e., small-lift launch vehicle (under 5,000 kgs), medium-lift launch vehicle (2,200 Kg to 20,000 Kg), heavy-lift launch vehicle (2,200 Kg to 20,000 Kg), and super-heavy lift launch vehicle (above 50,000 Kg).
1. Small-Lift Launch Vehicle: A small-lift launch vehicle is a rocket orbital launch vehicle that can hoist a payload into low Earth orbit (LEO) weighing little more than 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) (according to NASA classification) or no more than 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds) (according to Roscosmos classification). The medium-lift launch vehicles make up the following broader category.
The Soviet Union's Sputnik rocket was the first small-lift launch vehicle. The Sputnik rocket was used to launch the world's first satellite, Sputnik 1, into a low Earth orbit, on October 4, 1957.
Small-lift launch vehicles have been used in the aerospace industry to send payloads into space since the late 1950s. Although they have undergone substantial development, medium-lift, heavy-lift, and super-heavy-lift launch vehicles still cannot totally replace tiny launch vehicles. Some spacecraft's needs can be met by small launch vehicles, which can also be more affordable than larger launch vehicles.
1. Medium-Lift Launch Vehicle: A medium-lift launch vehicle is a type of rocket launch vehicle that can carry payloads weighing 2,200 to 20,000 kilograms into the orbit of the Earth.
The current space safety regime with medium-lift launch vehicles is anticipated to be improved by the ongoing commercial innovations across space debris tracking, fusion and analytics, space data collection, launch vehicle design, and space weather. The purpose of shifting the focus to the development of more medium-lift launch vehicles is to ensure the safety of flight products is comprehensive, timely, accurate, and capable of lifting better payload.
Reusable satellite launch vehicles (SLVs) are the focus of major market players, both established and recent newcomers, to lower launch costs. For instance, SpaceX's Falcon 9 is a medium-lift launch vehicle that can carry people and cargo into Earth orbit and even reach the International Space Station.
Additionally, the growing commercial launch vehicle market for putting satellites into orbit is propelling the expansion of the medium-lift as well as heavy-lift (discussed later in the article) launch vehicle market due to the rising launch demand and a scarcity of launch vehicles to get to space for commercial satellite clients.
According to the BIS Research report, the global medium and heavy lift launch vehicle market is estimated to reach $9.75 billion in 2032 from $6.45 billion in 2021, at a growth rate of 3.90% during the forecast period 2022-2032.
Figure 1 medium and heavy lift launch vehicle market growth
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2. Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicle: Launch vehicles falling under this category are those with a payload capacity greater than 20 tonnes but not greater than or equal to 50 tonnes. Due to the increasing demand for resupply missions, space research, communication, and Earth observation, heavy-lift launch vehicles are in high demand.
Heavy-lift launch vehicles are in use in the U.S., China, Russia, and France. Currently, the independently owned makers of heavy-lift launch vehicles include Ariane Group, United Launch Alliance, and SpaceX. State-owned launch vehicle producers exist in China and Russia and produce heavy-lift launch vehicles.
3. Super-Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle: A launch vehicle (spacecraft) having a payload capacity of more than 50 tonnes for the Earth's orbit is referred to as a super heavy-lift launch vehicle. Due to the growing interest in space exploration, including the moon to Mars mission, the demand for super heavy-lift launch vehicles is on the rise.
Super-heavy lift launch vehicles are currently being developed by the U.S., China, and Russia. The Space Launch System (SLS) and the Falcon Heavy are the two operating launchers in this sector as of September 2022. The Space Launch System (SLS) has been chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for the Artemis I Moon mission. The initial launch attempt was attempted on August 29, 2022, but it was aborted because of an incorrect reading from a backup sensor.
NASA has employed the economical Falcon Heavy on several flights, and commercial missions are also anticipated. It is anticipated that the producers of other super heavy-lift launch vehicles would compete on price with SpaceX to expand their market share in the launch vehicle industry.
The main objective of creating all the variations in launch vehicle designs is to optimize the vehicle's capacity to lift weights while also offering a sufficient level of reliability at a reasonable price. Depending on the goal and requirements of the space mission, all types of launch vehicles have a variety of applications.
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