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ULA's next big rocket just passed its first major design review

ULA

The design for the United Launch Alliance's next generation rocket, called the Vulcan Centaur, just passed its first critical review. The Vulcan is hailed as the replacement for the company's current leading rocket, the Atlas V, which has been the premiere vehicle for launching military satellites into space.

The Vulcan will be powered with American-made rocket engines

Unlike the Atlas V, the Vulcan will be powered with American-made rocket engines. Right now, the Atlas V's engines are manufactured in Russia, which has been a source of controversy for the company. In 2015, Congress banned the military from launching satellites on Russian-powered rockets, due to tense relations between US and Russia. That ban was recently lifted in December, but ULA is still eager to get off Russian technology with the Vulcan.

However, ULA hasn't decided which American engine will be used in the Vulcan just yet. The company has tasked two private aerospace manufacturers, Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne, with making engines for the future vehicle. Blue Origin's BE-4 engine and Aerojet's AR1 engine will both be functional equivalents to the Russian engines that ULA currently uses, but neither engine is guaranteed to power the Vulcan. Blue Origin is the leading candidate, according to ULA CEO Tory Bruno, and the recent design review of Vulcan also assumed the BE-4 as the rocket's main engine. A ULA executive, who has since resigned, made a series of candid comments about the company's partnership with Blue Origin and Aerojet, comparing them to two fiancées that need to be wooed.

Along with being American-made, the Vulcan will incorporate partial reusability into its design, though the recovery will be far different than how SpaceX saves its rockets. After the Vulcan launches and reaches a certain altitude, the main engine will detach and fall back to Earth. A parachute will deploy to slow the engine down, and then a helicopter will swoop in to grab the engine/parachute combo in mid-air. It's a complicated process that will allow ULA to recover its main engines post-flight, allowing them to reuse the hardware in follow-up launches.

Now that the first review is complete, ULA will move on to testing individual components of the Vulcan design. The first test flights of the vehicle are slated to begin in 2019, with missions expected to begin sometime in 2022 or 2023.