It looks like the often-delayed United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket is ready for launch. A lot is riding on the new rocket, not the least of which is ULA’s hopes of competing with SpaceX, the one rocket company that rules them all, and its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
The Vulcan Centaur has been under development since 2014 and has suffered numerous delays. When operational, the rocket will replace the ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. It has a number of technological innovations that the company hopes will make it attractive to customers such as NASA, the United States military and commercial entities. They include BE-4 rocket engines in the first stage, courtesy of Blue Origin. The BE-4 runs on liquid methane and liquid oxygen. The section of the first stage with the rocket engines will be reusable.
The Centaur second stage is as venerable as the Vulcan first stage is new. The Centaur has been in use since the 1960s.
Another feature of the Vulcan Centaur is its ability to use a variety of solid rocket boosters. It can use two, four, or even six depending on what kind of payload is being launched and where it is going.
The Vulcan Centaur already has some important customers lined up. The rocket is scheduled to launch the Astrobotic Peregrine lunar lander, the first moon landing that the United States has attempted since the end of the Apollo program, on Dec. 24. It is also scheduled to launch the Sierra Space Dream Chaser space plane in April. Once operational, the Dream Chaser will take cargo to and from the International Space Station. The United States Space Force will split 21 launches of its latest satellites between the Vulcan Centaur and the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch systems.
The question hanging over the Vulcan Centaur is, can it compete against the likes of the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy? Last year, a story in Reuters pegged the cost of a Vulcan Centaur launch as $110 million,…