Atlas V is one of the most reliable launch vehicles of NASA with 86 out of 87 successful launches and is still active, with the last launch on 18th May 2021. It was originally designed by Lockheed Martin, now being operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. It is the fifth major version of the Atlas rocket family.
Atlas V has taken many notable payloads. Curiosity Rover, Juno, New Horizons, MAVEN, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are some of them.
Atlas V is almost always used in a 2 stage configuration. It was used in the third stage configuration in the New Horizons’ mission. The first stage is powered by a Russian RD-180 engine burning kerosene and liquid oxygen. The Centaur upper stage is powered by one or two American RL10 engines burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. In the New Horizons mission, a solid propellant-based upper stage called the Star 48, was used. Atlas V has provisions for two different sizes of fairings — one of diameter 4.2 meters and the other with 5.4 meters.
Atlas V follows a 3 digit naming convention. The first digit is 4 or 5, depending upon the diameter of the fairing. It can also be “N” if it is a crewed flight (No payload). The second digit can be 0 to 5, depending upon the number of boosters and finally, the third digit can be 1 or 2, depending upon the number of engines in the Centaur stage.
Atlas V launches Perseverance Rover to Mars. Video Credits: America Space
Good to Know
In January of 2006, Atlas V set a new world record during the launch of the New Horizons mission, for the fastest spacecraft at the time of leaving Earth’s atmosphere – more than 36,000 miles per hour. At this speed, it would only take 41 minutes and 44 seconds to go around the Earth’s Equator, which is 24,902 miles. The spacecraft reached a top speed of 47,000 miles per hour. A flight from Denver to New York would only take 2 minutes and 16 seconds at that rate.
Together, Atlas and Delta Family rockets have launched more than 1,300 missions!