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Delta rocket


Delta rocket

Delta Family
The Delta rocket family.
Role Expendable launch system with various applications
Manufacturer United Launch Alliance
Introduction 1960
Status active

Delta is a versatile family of expendable launch systems that has provided space launch capability in the United States since 1960. There have been more than 300 Delta rockets launched, with a 95 percent success rate. Two Delta launch systems – Delta II and Delta IV – are in active use. Delta rockets are currently manufactured and launched by the United Launch Alliance.

Delta origins

Main article: Thor (rocket family)

The original Delta rockets used a modified version of the PGM-17 Thor, the first ballistic missile deployed by the United States Air Force, as their first stage. The Thor had been designed in the mid-1950s to reach Moscow from bases in Britain or similar allied nations, and the first wholly successful Thor launch had occurred in September 1957. Subsequent satellite and space probe flights soon followed, using a Thor first stage with several different upper stages. The fourth upper stage used on the Thor was the Thor "Delta," delta being the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. Eventually the entire Thor-Delta launch vehicle came to be called simply, "Delta."[1]

NASA intended Delta as "an interim general purpose vehicle" to be "used for communication, meteorological, and scientific satellites and lunar probes during '60 and '61". The plan was to replace Delta with other rocket designs when they came on-line. The Delta design emphasized reliability rather than performance by replacing components which had caused problems on earlier Thor flights. NASA let the original Delta contract to the Douglas Aircraft Company in April 1959 for 12 vehicles of this design:

  • Stage 1: Modified Thor IRBM with a Block I MB-3 engine producing 152,000 lbf (680 kN) thrust. (LOX/RP1 turbopump, gimbal mounted engine, two verniers for roll control)
  • Stage 2: Modified Able. Pressure fed UDMH/nitric acid powered Aerojet AJ-10-118 engine producing 7,700 lbf (34 kN). This reliable engine cost $4 million to build and is still flying in modified form today. Gas jet attitude control system.
  • Stage 3: Altair. A spin stabilized (via a turntable on top of the Able) at 100 rpm by two solid rocket motors before separation. One ABL X-248 solid rocket motor provided 2,800 lbf (12 kN) of thrust for 28 seconds. The stage weighed 500 pounds (230 kg) and was largely constructed of wound fiberglass.

These vehicles would be able to place 650 pounds (290 kg) into a 150 to 230 miles (240 to 370 km) LEO or 100 pounds (45 kg) into GTO. Eleven of the twelve initial Delta flights were successful. The total project development and launch cost came to $43 million, $3 million over budget. An order for 14 more vehicles was let before 1962.

Early Delta flights

No. Date Payload Site Outcome Remarks
1 May 13, 1960 Echo 1 CCAFS LC 17A failure Launch at 9:16 p.m. GMT. Good first stage. Second stage attitude control system failure. Vehicle destroyed.
2 August 12, 1960 Echo 1A success Payload placed into 1,035 miles (1,666 km), 47 degree inclination orbit.
3 November 23, 1960 TIROS-2 success
4 March 25, 1961 Explorer-10 success 78 pounds (35 kg) payload placed into elliptical 138,000 miles (222,000 km) orbit.
5 July 12, 1961 TIROS-3 success
6 August 16, 1961 Explorer-12 success Energetic Particle Explorers. EPE-A.[2] Highly elliptical orbit.
7 February 8, 1962 TIROS-4 success
8 March 7, 1962 OSO-1 success Orbiting Solar Observatory. 345 miles (555 km), 33 degree orbit.
9 April 26, 1962 Ariel 1 success Ariel 1 was later seriously damaged by the Starfish Prime nuclear test.
10 June 19, 1962 TIROS-5 success
11 July 10, 1962 Telstar 1 success Also later damaged by the Starfish Prime high altitude nuclear event.
12 September 18, 1962 TIROS-6 success

Delta evolution

Delta A

  • MB-3 Block II engine, 170,000 lbf (760 kN) vs. 152,000 lbf (680 kN)

13. EPE2
14. EPE3

Delta B

  • Upgraded AJ10-118D upper stage—3-foot tank stretch, higher energy oxidizer, solid-state guidance system
  • Delta program goes from 'interim' to 'operational' status.
  • 200 pounds (91 kg) to GTO

15. 13 December 1962. Relay 1, second NASA communications satellite, NASA's first active one
16. 13 February 1963. pad 17b. Syncom 1; Thiokol Star 13B solid rocket as apogee kick motor
20. July 26, 1963. Syncom 2; geosynchronous orbit, but inclined 33° due to the limited performance of the Delta

Delta C

  • Third stage Altair replaced with Altair 2—its engine having been developed as the ABL X-258 for the Scout vehicle; 3 in (76 mm) longer, 10% heavier, but 65% more total thrust
Sample mission: OSO-4

Delta D

  • Also known as Thrust Augmented Delta
  • A Delta C with the Thrust Augmented Thor core plus three Castor 1 boosters

25. 19 August 1964. Syncom 3, the first geostationary communications satellite
30. 6 April 1965. Intelsat I

Delta E

  • Also known as Thrust Augmented Improved Delta
  • 1965
  • 100 pounds (45 kg) more to GTO than Delta D
  • Castor 2 vs. Castor 1 boosters; Same thrust, longer duration
  • MB-3 Block III core engine, 2,000 lbf (8.9 kN) more thrust
  • AJ10-118E second stage widened from 2.75 feet (0.84 m) to 4.58 feet (1.40 m) diameter; Double burn time
  • Additional helium tanks allow for almost unlimited restarts.
  • Two available third stages: Altair 2 or FW-4D; the latter caused the Delta to be known as a Delta E1
  • New payload fairing from Agena

First Delta E. 6 November 1965; Launched GEOS 1

Delta F

  • This launch vehicle was not built[3]

Delta G

  • Two stage vehicle (Delta E without third stage).
  • Only used for 2 launches: Biosatellite 1 on 14 December 1966 and Biosatellite 2 on 7 September 1967.

Delta J

  • Used larger Thiokol Star 37D motor as third stage.
  • Only one launch (Explorer 38) of this configuration on 4 July 1968.

Delta K

  • This launch vehicle was not built[3]

Delta L

  • Introduced Extended Long Tank first stage- 8 feet (2.4 m) diameter throughout
  • Used the United Technologies FW-4D motor for third stage

Delta M

  • Three stage configuration.
  • Long Tank Thor (MB-3-3 engine) augmented with 3 Castor 2 boosters; Delta E second stage
  • Star 37D (Burner 2) for third stage (apogee kick motor)
  • There were 12 successful Delta M launches from 1968 until 1971.[4]

Delta N

  • Two stage configuration
  • Long Tank Thor (MB-3-3 engine) augmented with 3 Castor 2 boosters; Delta E second stage
  • There were 6 successful Delta N launches from 1968 until 1972.[5]

'Super Six'

  • Delta M or Delta N with three additional Castor 2 boosters (maximum configuration), these were designated as either M6 or N6.
  • 1 launch of the M6 configuration - Explorer 43 (IMP-H, Magnetospheric research) on 13 March 1971.[6]
  • 3 launches of the N6 configuration, one failure (1970-1971).[7]
  • 1,000 pounds (450 kg) to GTO

Launch reliability

From 1969 through 1978 (inclusive), Thor-Delta was NASA's most popular launcher, with 84 launch attempts. (Scout was the second-most used vehicle with 32 launches.)[8]
NASA used it to launch its own satellites, and also to launch satellites for other government agencies and foreign governments on a cost-reimbursable basis.
Sixty-three of the satellites NASA attempted to launch were provided by other parties. Out of the 84 attempts there were seven failures or partial failures (91.6% successful).[9]

Delta numbering system

In 1972, McDonnell Douglas introduced a four-digit numbering system to replace the letter-naming system.
The new system could better accommodate the various changes and improvements to Delta rockets (and avoided the problem of a rapidly depleting alphabet).
It specified (1) the tank and main engine type, (2) number of solid boosters, (3) second stage (letters refer to engine, not earlier letter system), and (4) third stage.[10]

Number First Digit
(First stage/boosters)
Second Digit
(Number of boosters)
Third Digit
(Second Stage)
Fourth Digit
(Third stage)
(Heavy configuration)
0 Long Tank Thor
MB-3 engine
Castor 2 SRBs
No SRBs Delta F*, with Aerojet AJ-10-118F engines.
*References uprated Aerojet AJ-10-118 engine
No third stage N/A
1 Extended Long Tank Thor
MB-3 engine
Castor 2 SRBs
N/A Delta P*, Douglas built with TRW TR-201 engines.
*Exception: AJ-10-118F engine for Anik-A1 launch.[11]
2 Extended Long Tank Thor
RS-27 engine
Castor 2 SRBs
2 SRBs (or LRBs in the case of the Delta IVH) Delta K*, with AJ-10-118K engines.
*References uprated Aerojet AJ-10-118 engine
FW-4D (unflown)
3 Extended Long Tank Thor
RS-27 engine
Castor 4 SRBs
3 SRBs Delta III cryogenic upper stage, RL-10B-2 engine Star 37D
4 Extended Long Tank Thor
MB-3 engine
Castor 4A SRBs
4 SRBs Delta IV 4m diameter cryogenic upper stage, RL-10B-2 engine Star 37E
5 Extended Long Tank Thor
RS-27 engine
Castor 4A SRBs
N/A Delta IV 5m diameter cryogenic upper stage, RL-10B-2 engine Star 48B/PAM-D
6 Extra-Extended Long Tank Thor
RS-27 engine
Castor 4A SRBs
6 SRBs N/A Star 37FM
7 Extra-Extended Long Tank Thor
RS-27A engine
8 Strengthened Extra-Extended Long Tank Thor
RS-27A engine
9 Delta IV CBC
RS-68 engine
9 SRBs 2 additional CBC Parallel first stages

This numbering system was to have been phased out in favor of a new system that was introduced in 2005.[12] In practice, this system was never been used.

Number First Digit
(First stage/boosters)
Second Digit
(Number of boosters)
Third Digit
(Second Stage)
Fourth Digit
(Third stage)
(Heavy configuration)
0 N/A No SRBs N/A No third stage N/A
1 N/A N/A
2 Extra-Extended Long Tank Thor
RS-27A engine
2 SRBs (or LRBs in the case of the Delta IVH) Delta K, with AJ-10-118K engines GEM 46 SRBs
3 Strengthened Extra-Extended Long Tank Thor
RS-27A engine
3 SRBs N/A
4 Delta IV CBC
RS-68 engine
4 SRBs Delta IV 4m diameter cryogenic upper stage, RL-10B-2 engine 2 additional CBC Parallel first stages
5 N/A N/A Delta IV 5m diameter cryogenic upper stage, RL-10B-2 engine Star 48B/PAM-D N/A
6 N/A Star 37FM
7 N/A
9 9 SRBs

Delta 904

Main article: Delta 0100
  • The Long Tank Thor, a stretched version of the Thor missile
  • First use of nine strap-on boosters for Landsat 1 launch on July 23, 1972.
  • First use of new uprated Delta F second-stage using Aerojet AJ 10-118F engine.
  • This Thor-Delta model was designated the 904.[13]

Delta 1000-Series

Main article: Delta 1000
  • Nicknamed Straight-Eight.
  • Extended Long Tank with 8-foot-diameter (2.4 m) payload fairing.
  • Nine Castor II strap-on solid boosters.
  • The first successful 1000 series Thor-Delta launched Explorer 47 on September 22, 1972.[13]
  • Introduction of McDonnell-Douglas Delta-P second stage using TRW TR-201 engine.

Delta 2000-Series

Main article: Delta 2000
  • Features new Rocketdyne RS-27 main engine on Extended Long Tank. Same constant eight-foot diameter.
  • Delta 2910 boosters were used to launch both Landsat 2 in 1975 and Landsat 3 in 1978.
  • First time three satellites (NOAA 4, Intesat, and Amsat Oscar 7) launched simultaneously on Delta 2310 model -- November 15, 1974.
  • A Delta 2914 was used 1978-04-07 to launch the Japanese BSE Broadcasting Satellite, also known as "Yuri 1".[14]

Delta 3000-Series

  • Introduced upgraded Castor IV solid motors. Same first stage as 1000- and 2000-series.
  • Introduced PAM (Payload Assist Module)/Star 48B solid-fueled kick motor. Later used as Delta II third stage.
  • The Delta 3914 model was approved for launching U.S. government payloads in May 1976.[13]
  • The Delta 3914 model was launched 13 times between 1975-1987.
  • Last Delta series to use the McD Delta-P second stage with TRW TR-201 engine.

Delta 4000-Series

  • Used old MB-3 main engine on Extended Long Tank with Castor IV motors..
  • First use of a Delta-K second stage.
  • Only launched two missions.

Delta 5000-Series

  • Featured upgraded Castor IVA motors on Extended Long Tank first stage with RS-27 main engine.
  • Only launched one mission.

Delta II series

Main article: Delta II

The Delta II series consists of the retired Delta 6000, the active Delta 7000, and two variants (Lite and Heavy) of the latter. It was developed by Boeing at Chatsworth and Canoga Park, California, and its engines were tested at Boeing's Santa Susana Field Laboratory, (SSFL), located northwest of Los Angeles in the Simi hills.

Delta 6000-Series

When in 1986 the Challenger accident demonstrated that Delta launches would continue, the Delta II was developed.

  • Introduced Extra Extended Long Tank first stage. 12 additional feet provide more propellant.
  • Introduced Castor IVA boosters. Six ignite at takeoff, 3 ignite in flight.

Delta 7000-Series

  • Introduces RS-27A main engine, modified for efficiency at high altitude, at some cost to low-altitude performance.
  • Introduces GEM-40 (Graphite-Epoxy Motor) solid boosters from Hercules (now Alliant). Besides being longer, their lighter casings allow higher payload capability.

Delta II Med-Lite

A 7000-series with no third stage and fewer strap-ons (often three, sometimes four). Usually used for small NASA missions.

Delta II Heavy

A Delta II 792X with the enlarged GEM-46 boosters from Delta III.

Delta III (8000-Series)

Main article: Delta III

A McDonnell Douglas/Boeing-developed program to keep pace with growing satellite masses:

  • The two upper stages, with low-performance fuels, were replaced with a single cryogenic stage, improving performance and reducing recurring costs and pad labor. Engine was a single Pratt & Whitney RL10, from the Centaur upper stage. The hydrogen fuel tank, 4 meters in diameter in orange insulation, is exposed; the narrower oxygen tank and engine are covered until stage ignition. Fuel tank contracted to Mitsubishi, and produced using technologies from Japanese H-II launcher.
  • To keep the stack short and resistant to crosswinds, the first-stage kerosene tank was widened and shortened, matching the upper-stage and fairing diameters.
  • Nine enlarged GEM-46 solid boosters attached. Three have thrust-vectoring nozzles.

Of the three Delta III flights, the first two were failures and the third carried only a dummy (inert) payload.

Delta IV (9000-series)

Main article: Delta IV

As part of the Air Force's EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) program, McDonnell Douglas/Boeing proposed Delta IV. As the program implies, many components and technologies were borrowed from existing launchers. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin were contracted to produce their EELV designs. Delta IVs are produced in a new facility in Decatur, Alabama.

  • First stage changed to liquid hydrogen fuel. Tank technologies derived from Delta III upper stage, but widened to 5 meters.
  • Kerosene engine replaced with Rocketdyne RS-68, the first new, large liquid-fueled rocket engine designed in the US since the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) in the '70s. Designed for low cost; has lower chamber pressure and efficiency than the SSME, and a much simpler nozzle. Thrust chamber and upper nozzle is a channel-wall design, pioneered by Soviet engines. Lower nozzle is ablatively cooled.
  • Second stage and fairing taken from the Delta III in smaller (Delta IV Medium) models; widened to 5 meters in Medium+ and Heavy models.
  • Medium+ models have two or four GEM-60 60-inch diameter solid boosters.
  • Revised plumbing and electric circuits eliminate need for a launch tower.

The first stage is referred to as a common booster core (CBC); a Delta IV Heavy attaches two extra CBCs as boosters.

Delta IV Heavy

Main article: Delta IV Heavy

The Delta IV Heavy (Delta 9250H) two additional CBCs as boosters. These are strap-on boosters which are separated earlier in the flight than the center CBC.
The initial demonstration flight on December 21, 2004 was a partial failure, due to the premature cutoff of CBCs.[15][16] The DemoSat reached incorrect orbit and the 3CS satellites entered orbit at a height of only 105 km, which led to a rapid decay.
The cause of the problem was a faulty first stage LOX depletion sensor signal that resulted when LOX cavitation occurred in the LOX feedline.  The LOX feedline/sensor design was modified and the problem did not recur on subsequent Delta IV Heavy missions.[17]

  • Features a stretched 5-meter composite payload fairing.[18]
  • An aluminum trisector (3 part) fairing derived from the Titan IV fairing is also available.[19] This was first used on the DSP-23 flight.
  • First successful launch from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on November 11, 2007.[20][21]
  • First successful launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) on January 20, 2011.
  • On August 28, 2013 A Delta IV Heavy was launched from

Future development

Currently development is focused human-rating the Delta IV Heavy, which uses three Common Booster Cores to lift higher masses to orbit and escape velocity.

See also


  • Forsyth, Kevin S. (2002). Delta: The Ultimate Thor. In Roger Launius and Dennis Jenkins (Eds.), To Reach The High Frontier: A History of U.S. Launch Vehicles. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2245-7

External links

  • History of the Delta Launch Vehicle
  • Delta Launch Record
  • The Satellite Encyclopedia - Thor Delta

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