ULA’s Vulcan Rocket Requires Key Fix Prior to Debut Launch

ULA’s Vulcan Rocket Requires Key Fix Prior to Debut Launch

The anticipated first launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur may have to wait a little bit longer as the company tries to address an anomaly in the rocket’s upper stage.

The heavy-lift rocket completed a flight readiness review test on June 7, bringing it one step closer to its inaugural flight. There is still one unresolved issue with the rocket, however, that could delay its debut liftoff until late 2023, anonymous sources told Ars Technica.

It’s been a bumpy ride for ULA in trying to see its new rocket fly for the first time. The fully expendable 61.57 m-tall rocket was originally scheduled for its debut liftoff on May 4. Five weeks before its scheduled launch, however, a fiery explosion swept over the rocket’s test stand at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama while engineers were pressurizing its upper stage.

Things were finally looking up for ULA’s Centaur rocket after it completed a static fire test of its engines earlier this month in preparation for the inaugural flight. The test, which lasted for about six seconds, saw the rocket’s two BE-4 engines, which run on a mixture of liquid methane and liquid oxygen, throttling up to their target level before powering down.

Although the test was successful, the Colorado-based company is yet to announce a launch date for its rocket. Earlier this week, ULA CEO Tory Bruno wrote on Twitter that the one thing that stands in the way of Vulcan’s debut launch is the “qual test that was interrupted by the Centaur V anomaly.”

Bruno is referring to that aforementioned anomaly that surfaced during a pressure test in late March when the rocket’s hydrogen tank failed. He added on the Twitter thread, however, that the “root cause found,” and “the super thin, high performance steel skin needs to be a little thicker near the top of the dome.” The company’s CEO also stated that there would be another pressure test of the Centaur stage qualification tank once it has been strengthened.

ULA’s Vulcan Centaur is set to replace ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which have been in use for the past two decades. The company was initially aiming for a 2020 debut launch of its long-awaited rocket, which was later pushed to 2022 and then again to May 2023. The rocket was held back by the delivery of its two BE-4 engines, built by Blue Origin, which were more than four years past the deadline.

The Vulcan Centaur is designed to lift 27.2 metric tons to low Earth orbit and 6.5 metric tons to geosynchronous orbit.

For its first mission, the rocket will attempt to deliver Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, which, on behalf of NASA, is designed to deliver 11 payloads to the surface of the Moon. Vulcan Centaur is also carrying the first two Amazon Kuiper internet satellites, which are built to work in low Earth orbit.

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Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.

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