Space Launch Systems around the World

Atlas V llaunch
An Atlas V rocket launches with the Juno spacecraft payload from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA.

Did you know that at least 27 countries around the world currently have or are developing launch systems to take equipment and people to space? Most of us know about the big players: the United States, Russia, European Space Agency, Japan, and China. Historically, the US and Russia have led the pack. But, in the years since space exploration began, other countries have gotten interested and actively pursued space-based dreams.

Who's Been Going to Space?

The current list of nations (or groups of nations) with past, present and developing launch systems includes:

  • Argentina: has one system under development;
  • Australia: has one system under development;
  • Brazil: has one working system due for launch and one under development;
  • China: has a history of launch systems, with current Long March systems in use or under development by China National Space Administration;
  • Europe: dependent on the Ariane and Vega system. More are under development;
  • France: had one system, now works through ESA;
  • Germany: had one system, now works through ESA;
  • India: currently has several launch systems in use and under development;
  • Indonesia: two systems under development;
  • Iran: two systems in use;
  • Iraq: had one system, currently retired;
  • Israel: has one system;
  • Italy: one system, works with ESA;
  • Japan: a collection of launch systems operated by JAXA, some retired, some in use, some under development;
  • New Zealand: one system under development;
  • North Korea: has two active systems;
  • Romania: one system under development;
  • Russia: along with its successor states, Russia has a history of launch systems, currently using Soyuz, Proton, and Zenit launch systems, with others under development via Roscosmos;
  • South Africa: two systems now retired;
  • South Korea: one system working, one under development;
  • Spain: had one system, now retired; works with ESA;
  • Taiwan: one system under development    
  • Turkey: one system under development
  • United Kingdom: had two systems, now retired    
  • United States: currently using Atlas V, Falcons, and several others, with new systems under development through NASA and private industry.

Launch systems are used for a variety of projects across all the space agencies, including satellite launch and deployment, and in the case of Russia and the US, to also loft humans into orbit. Currently the target for human launches is the International Space Station. The Moon may well be the next target, and there are rumors that China will want to launch its own space station in the near future.

Launch vehicles are rockets used to carry payloads to space. The rocket doesn't exist on its own, however. The entire "ecosystem" of a launch includes the rocket, the launch pad, control towers, control buildings, teams of technical and scientific staff members, fueling systems, and communications systems. 

Most news stories about launches focus on the rockets. In the early days, the rockets used to explore space were repurposed military rockets. However, to go to space, rockets needed more refined pointing, better electronics, more powerful fuel loads, computers, and other ancillary equipment such as cameras. 

Rockets: A Quick Look at How They're Rated

Rockets are usually classified by the load they carry -- that is, the amount of mass they can lift out of Earth's gravity well and into orbit. Russia's Proton rocket, which is well known as a heavy booster, can lift 22,000 kilograms (49,000 lb) into low Earth orbit (LEO). Its main loads have been satellites taken to geosynchronous orbit or beyond. To get to the International Space Station to deliver cargo and crew, the Russians use a Soyuz-FG rocket, with the Soyuz transfer vehicle up top.

In the U.S., the current "heavy lift" favorites are the Falcon 9 series, the Atlas V rockets, Pegasus and Minotaur rockets, Delta II and Delta IV.  Also in the US, the Blue Origin program is testing reusable rockets, as is SpaceX. 

China relies on their Long March series, while Japan uses the H-IIA, H-11B, and MV rockets. India has used the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle for its interplanetary mission to Mars. European launches depend on the Ariane series, as well as Soyuz and Vega rockets. 

Launch vehicles are also characterized by their number of stages, that is, the number of rocket motors used to loft the rocket to its destination. There can be as many as five stages on a rocket, as well as single-stage-to-orbit rockets. They may or may not have boosters, which allow for larger payloads to be lofted into space. It all depends on the needs of the specific launch. 

Rockets are, for the time being, humanity's sole source for access to space. Even the space shuttle fleet used rockets to get into orbit, and even the upcoming Sierra Nevada Corporation Dreamchaser (still in development and testing) will need to get to space aboard an Atlas V rocket.