NASA’s Next Launch Vehicle Envisioned

Although the next big space telescope is not scheduled for launch before 2013, NASA scientists and engineers are already planning the launch vehicles that will be able to carry even larger telescopes into high orbit and eventually help humanity create a permanent outpost on the Moon.

NASA’s forthcoming Ares V missile which is scheduled for first launch late in the next decade will be 8% more powerful than the Saturn V rocket which took the first astronauts to the moon four decades ago. Although this seems like a minor improvement there are some important differences between the two generations of missiles. While the Saturn V used three liquid-fueled stages, (burning liquid oxygen and kerosene as well as liquid hydrogen and oxygen), the Ares V will use two liquid-fueled hydrogen/oxygen stages, and two modified Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters.  

Ares V will be able to place almost 130,000 kg (284,000 lbs) into low Earth orbit. Designed to deliver cargo to the Moon, the rocket will be large enough to carry a telescope with a primary mirror 8-meters wide (Hubble’s mirror for example measures only 2.4m). The James Webb Space Telescope which is planned for 2013 will have a 6.5m mirror made of 18 mirror segments which will stretch the carrying capacity of existing Ariane 5 missile planned to launch it into a stationary orbit between the earth and the sun. 

According to NASA until now some mirrors were just too big to consider for space based telescopes due to weight and size limitations of existing launch vehicles. NASA engineers envision future Ares V payload of up to 12m enabling engineers to consider an off-the-shelf mirror, like the single-piece, 8-meter (26.2 ft) primaries in the ground-based Gemini telescopes. 

More information on NASA’s future launch vehicles and space based telescopes can be found here. NASA Ares V webpage can be found here
Image: Illustration of a future space telescope and launch vehicle (Credit: NASA).