NASA's plans for the mammoth Ares V rocket could do more than just launch new lunar landers and cargo to the moon. It could also haul massive telescopes that dwarf the Hubble Space Telescope or fling deep space probes on faster missions to the outer planets.
Slated to make its first test flight in 2018, the Ares V rocket is designed to stand about 381 feet (116 meters) tall and be able to launch payloads weighing almost 180 metric tons into low-Earth orbit.
"When it's built, it'll be the biggest rocket that's ever been built," said Kathy Laurini, project manager for NASA's Altair lunar lander designed to ride an Ares V to the moon by 2020, has said. "It's quite big."
But while the Ares V is designed under NASA's Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon, the rocket behemoth presents a boon for astronomers and other scientists dreaming of bigger, better space-based observatories.
"The science community is taking a hard look at Ares V and its capability," Laurini told SPACE.com. "It helps them enable a whole other class of mission."
Heavy rocket science
The two-stage Ares V rocket is designed to launch Altair landers and an Earth departure stage into Earth orbit, where they'll be met by an Orion crew-carrying spacecraft launched atop a smaller Ares I rocket. Two 5 1/2-segment solid rocket boosters derived from the current four-segment versions that launch NASA space shuttles will help Ares V haul payloads weighing nearly 396,000 pounds (180,000 kg) — or the equivalent of 17 school buses — into space.
"Imagine the kind of telescope a rocket like that could launch," said Harley Thronson, an astronomer leading advanced concepts in astronomy at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "It could revolutionize astronomy."
Ares V will stand taller than NASA's last gargantuan booster — the 363-foot (110-meter) Saturn V moon rocket — and will barely fit inside the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building at the agency's Florida launch site, NASA officials have said. Its nosecone is large enough to accommodate eight school buses stacked vertically, and its engines generate enough thrust to launch six times the cargo of a NASA space shuttle in a space three times larger than an orbiter's payload bay, they added.
Space telescopes of the future
A 2008 National Research Council report found that 12 of 17 potential flagship space science missions could benefit from the repurposing of NASA's Ares V rocket for space missions beyond hauling cargo and landers to the moon. The missions range from massive space telescopes to planetary probes to the sun, Neptune and Saturn's moon Titan.
The report, entitled "Launching Science: Science Opportunities Provided by NASA's Constellation System," cautioned that while such missions could cost more than $5 billion a piece, NASA's Ares V rocket offered unique capabilities to launch enormous space telescopes that would humble Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope slated to launch in 2013.
"The bigger the better," Thronson said. "NASA's new Ares V rocket is going to completely change the rules of the game."
The roomy 33-foot (10-meter) payload shroud for Ares V allows extra space for space telescopes with larger main mirrors.
Hubble's main mirror, for example, is about 7.8 feet (2.4 meters) across. Ares V could fit an observatory nearly three times larger, like the proposed 26-foot (8-meter) Monolithic Space Telescope, which would be able to observe objects in space 11 times more fainter and with three times the sharpness of Hubble, NASA officials said.
"The 8-meter-diameter telescope can only fit inside an Ares V payload fairing," the NRC report stated.
Even larger space telescopes could be packed atop the rocket if their mirrors were folded up for launch, such the 52-foot (16-meter) Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope planned by astronomer Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute. The optical and ultraviolet light observatory could refine the search for habitable planets around distant stars and help better understand galaxy formation around supermassive black holes.
"ATLAST would be nearly 2,000 times more sensitive than the Hubble Telescope and would provide images about seven times sharper than either Hubble or James Webb," Postman said. "It could help us find the long sought answer to a very compelling question, 'Is there life elsewhere in the galaxy?'"
Astronomer Dan Lester at the University of Texas at Austin envisions loading a full 8-meter Single Aperture Far-Infrared Telescope to probe deeper into the depths of protostars aboard an Ares V, or packing up a larger 16-meter version on the rocket.
Another proposal by Roger Brissenden of the Chandra X-ray Center includes calls for an 8-meter X-ray telescope dubbed Gen-X to hunt for the first black holes, stars and galaxies in the universe. The space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory, for comparison, has an aperture about 3 feet (1 meters) across.
Probing planets, deep space
Ares V rockets also pose a boon for interplanetary missions since the heavy-lift booster could offer a more direct flight.
According to the NRC report, using the rocket to launch NASA's proposed Neptune Orbiter with Probes mission could negate the need to use a nuclear-electric engine or use Neptune's atmosphere for braking during orbit insertion.
"The planetary community's interested in performance for getting extra delta v to reduce the amount of trip time to the outer planets," Steve Cookm NASA's Ares project manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has said.
Launching another mission, the Titan Explorer flight to send an orbiter, lander and blimp to the shrouded Saturnian moon, aboard an Ares V could shorten the years-long flight and allow the probe to use rocket engines, instead of atmospheric braking, to entire orbit, the NRC report stated.
"We could get incredible astronomy from this big rocket," says Thronson, a professional dreamer. "I can't wait."