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Centaur-2A upper stage of an Atlas IIA.
Centaur is a rocket stage designed for use as the upper stage of space launch vehicles. Centaur boosts its satellite payload to its final orbit or, in the case of an interplanetary space probe, to escape velocity. Centaur was the world's first high-energy upper stage, burning liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX).

Centaur, named after the centaurs of Greek mythology, was the brain child of Karel J. "Charlie" Bossart (the man behind the Atlas ICBM) and Dr. Krafft A. Ehricke, both Convair employees. Their design was essentially a smaller version of the Atlas concept, using lightweight stainless steel "balloon tanks" whose structural strength was provided by the pressure of the fuel within.

Centaur uses an ingenious common double-bulkhead to separate the LOX and LH2 tanks. The two stainless steel skins are separated by a 0.25 inch (6.4 mm) layer of fiberglass. The extreme cold of the LH2 on one side creates a vacuum within the fiberglass layer, giving the bulkhead a low thermal conductivity, and thus preventing heat transfer from the relatively warm LOX to the super cold LH2. It is powered by one or two RL10 rocket engines (SEC and DEC variants respectively).

Development history

Development started in 1956 at NASA's Lewis Research Center, now the Glenn Research Centermarker, but proceeded slowly, with the first (unsuccessful) test flight in May 1962. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Centaur was proposed as a high energy upper stage for the Saturn I, Saturn IB and Saturn V rockets, under the designation S-V ("Saturn V") in accordance with the numbering of other stages of Saturn rockets. However, the first successful Centaur flight did not take place until 1965, by which point NASA had replaced the Centaur with much larger upper stages on their designs.

From 1966 to 1989, the Centaur-D was used as the upper stage for 63 Atlas rocket launches. 55 of these launches were successful.

From 1974 to 1977, the Centaur-D-1T was used as the third stage on 7 Titan IIIE launches, 6 of which were successful. Spacecraft launched by these vehicles included Viking 1, Viking 2, Voyager 1, and Voyager 2.

A major change to the Centaur occurred in the early 1980s with the removal of the hydrogen peroxide powered boost pumps and attitude control system from the vehicle. Instead the RL-10 engines were fed directly via tank pressure- resulting in significant reduction in system complexity. A hydrazine monopropellant attitude control system replaced the previous hydrogen peroxide system.

A new version, the Centaur-G, was developed for use with the Space Shuttle but was never used due to tougher safety rules imposed after the Challenger accident. This Shuttle/Centaur configuration changed the hydrogen tank diameter to 14 feet while retaining the 10 foot diameter oxygen tank. The geometry was optimized for installation into the Space Shuttle Orbiter payload bay. Its initial mission was to be the Galileo scientific probe to Jupiter. The Centaur systems were dwarfed in their complexity by the supporting fluids, avionic and structural systems which were integrated into the Centaur Integrated Support System or CISS. In addition to more mundane tasks these systems were required to rapidly dump propellants overboard in the event of a Return To Launch Site (RTLS) abort. This was required to permit the orbiter to land safely. These contingency, emergency and abort provisions effectively amplified system complexity to an extreme level and drove the majority of the systems design.

The decision to terminate the Shuttle/Centaur program spurred the US Air Force to create the Titan IV, which used a similar Centaur-T with a 14 foot hydrogen tank diameter as its final stage. This vehicle was capable of launching payloads which had originally been designed for the Shuttle-Centaur combination. In the Titan 401A configuration, a Centaur-T was launched 9 times between 1994 and 1998. In the Titan 401B configuration, a Centaur-T was launched 7 times, with one failure, between 1997 and 2003. The last Titan-Centaur launch was in 2003. The 14 ft diameter Centaur design has now been effectively retired.

Another major reconfiguration was done for the Atlas III vehicle with a change from dual RL-10 engines as standard to a single RL-10. This change was accomplished while retaining the ability to revert to dual engines should mission requirements dictate. For most missions however a single RL-10 is optimal or adequate and hence a substantial reliability and cost benefit was realized.

A "Common Centaur" was unveiled by LM on November 30, 1999. The stretched stage was 38.5 feet (11.68 m) in length, 5.5 feet (1.7 m) longer than the Centaur used on Atlas IIA and IIAS rockets at that time.


Although Centaur has a long and successful history in planetary exploration, it has had its share of problems, especially early on:
  • May 8, 1962: Centaur weather shield separated early; stage exploded
  • June 30, 1964: RL-10 hydraulic actuator pump shaft broke, preventing one of the two RL-10 engines from vectoring. This lead to no roll control, and uncovering of LOX inlet.
  • December 11, 1964: Restart attempt failed, due to problem with ullage rockets.
  • April 7, 1966: Centaur did not restart after coast - ullage motors ran out of fuel.
  • August 10, 1968: Centaur restart failed.
  • May 9, 1971; Centaur guidance failed, destroying itself and the Mariner 8 spacecraft bound for Mars orbit.
  • Feb 11, 1974: Titan-Centaur; boost pump failed.
  • June 9, 1984: Centaur LOX tank failed; no restart.
  • April 18, 1991: Centaur failed due to icing of hydrogen pump impellor blades (not understood at the time)
  • August 22, 1992: Centaur failed to restart (icing problem again)
  • April 30, 1999: Launch of the USA-143 (Milstar-3) comsat failed when a Centaur programming error resulted in incorrect burn times, placing the satellite in a useless orbit.
  • June 15, 2007: the engine in the Centaur upper stage of an Atlas V shut down early, leaving its payload—a pair of National Reconnaissance Officemarker ocean surveillance satellite -- in a lower than intended orbit. The failure was called "A major disappointment", though later statements claim the spacecraft will still be able to complete their mission. The cause was traced to a stuck-open valve that depleted some of the hydrogen fuel, resulting in the second burn terminating 4 seconds early. The problem was fixed and the next flight was nominal.

Current status

, derivatives of the 10 foot diameter Centaur-3, with either one or two RL-10A4-2 engines, continue to be used as the upper stage of the Atlas V EELV rocket, the successor of the Titan-Centaur configuration.

Future uses

There is a possible use of the Centaur as an upper stage on the new Delta IV Heavy rocket, which started test flights in 2004, and may even be used as a high-energy "kick motor" for planetary probes launched onboard the 125-ton Ares V, which will see its first flight around 2018..

A Centaur has also been proposed as an upper stage for the proposed Ares-V alternative, the Jupiter-232. It would be used on the Jupiter until the J-2X upper stage engine became available.

The Centaur has a planned evolutionary upgrade which changes the tank diameter to 5.4m and increases propellant load from 1.5 to 6.0 times that of the present Atlas V configuration. This diameter matches the existing Contraves-built 5.4m payload fairing, thus eliminating many structural elements and permitting the vehicle to fly from existing launch complexes with minimal modifications. This design reverses the internal common bulkhead and streamlines many systems while permitting many existing systems and components to fly unchanged. Modular design enables multiple engine configurations from one to six RL-10s or up to three advanced next-generation high performance engines. This evolved Centaur can be flown either on existing Atlas boosters ( designated a Phase 1 configuration) or on next generation 5.4m diameter boosters (designated Phase 2).

Performance levels for the Evolved Centaur based Phase 1 vehicles envelope all Atlas V capabilities. In certain circumstances a single Atlas booster vehicle with five solids and with an evolved Centaur upper-stage can replace a three-booster core Atlas V-Heavy (HLV). This has obvious reliability and cost benefits. Phase 2 vehicles open the door to a vastly higher performance capability. Up to 80 metric tons can be lifted to low earth orbit on a Phase 2 HLV vehicle — a substantial fraction of a Saturn V or Ares V vehicle. This performance level, mandated only by NASA crewed exploration missions, can be achieved using hardware identical to that used for traditional commercial and USG missions thus allowing development and support costs to be diluted by rate.

Studies have been conducted showing the extensibility of the basic Centaur and Evolved Centaur designs to long duration space flight for exploration purposes and even for use as a Lunar Lander. Complementing these basic performance capabilities is the ability to rate the vehicle for crewed operation. Extensive work has been conducted showing that achieving this "man-rating" is straightforward and does not mandate wholesale design changes to the Centaur vehicle.

Test bed for cryogenic fluid management experiments

Lockheed Martin Space Systems has described the ability to use existing Centaur hardware, with little modification, as a test bed for in-space cryogenic fluid management techniques. Most Centaurs launched on Atlas have excess propellants, ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds, which could be used for “rideshare” experiments flown as secondary payloads conducted after separation of the primary spacecraft.


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