Comparing the Size of The World’s Rockets, Past and Present
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Comparing the Size of The World’s Rockets, Past and Present

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The Size of The World’s Rockets, Past and Present

The SpaceX Starship might be the next rocket to take humans to the moon, but it won’t be the first, and likely not the last.

Starting in the mid-20th century, humanity has explored space faster than ever before. We’ve launched satellites, telescopes, space stations, and spacecrafts, all strapped to rocket-propelled launch vehicles that helped them breach our atmosphere.

This infographic from designer Tyler Skarbek stacks up the many different rockets of the world side-by-side, showing which country designed them, what years they were used, and what they (could) accomplish.

How Do The World’s Rockets Stack Up?

Before they were used for space travel, rockets were produced and developed to be used as ballistic missiles.

The first rocket to officially reach space—defined by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale as crossing the Kármán line at 100 kilometers (62 miles) above Earth’s mean sea level—was the German-produced V-2 rocket in 1944.

But after World War II, V-2 production fell into the hands of the U.S., the Soviet Union (USSR), and the UK.

Over the next few decades and the unfolding of the Cold War, what started as a nuclear arms race of superior ballistic missiles turned into the Space Race. Both the U.S. and the USSR tried to be the first to achieve and master spaceflight, driving production of many new and different rockets.

Origin CountryRocketYears ActivePayload (Range)Success/Failure
GermanyV-21942–1952(Suborbital)2852/950
U.S.Vanguard1957–19599 kg (LEO)3/8
USSRSputnik1957–19641,322 kg (LEO)6/1
U.S.Juno 11958–195811 kg (LEO)3/3
U.S.Juno II1958–196141 kg (LEO)4/6
USSRVostok1958–19914,725 kg (LEO)106/3
U.S.Redstone1960–19611,800 kg (Suborbital)5/1
U.S.Atlas LV-3B1960–19631,360 kg (LEO)7/2
U.S.Atlas-Agena1960–19781,000 kg (LEO)93/16
U.S.Scout1961–1994150 kg (LEO)121/27
USSRVoskhod1963–19765,900 kg (LEO)281/14
U.S.Titan II1964–19663,100 kg (LEO)12/0
Europe (ELDO)Europa1964–1971360 kg (GTO)4/7
FranceDiamant1965–1975160 kg (LEO)9/3
U.S.Atlas E/F1965–2001820 kg (LEO)56/9
USSRSoyuz1965–Present7,100 kg (LEO)1263/44
USSRProton1965–Present23,700 kg (LEO)375/48
U.S.Saturn 1B1966–197521,000 kg (LEO)9/0
U.S.Saturn V1967–197348,600 kg (TLI)13/0
USSRKosmos-3M1967–20101,500 kg (LEO)424/20
UKBlack Arrow1969–1971135 kg (LEO)2/2
U.S.Titan 23B1969–19713,300 kg (LEO)32/1
USSRN11969–197223,500 kg (TLI)0/4
JapanN-11975–19821,200 kg (LEO)6/1
Europe (ESA)Ariane 11976–19861,400 kg (LEO)9/2
USSRTsyklon-31977–20094,100 kg (LEO)114/8
U.S.STS1981–201124,400 kg (LEO)133/2
USSRZenit1985–Present13,740 kg (LEO)71/13
JapanH-I1986–19923,200 kg (LEO)9/0
USSREnergia1987–198888,000 kg (LEO)2/0
IsraelShavit1988–2016800 kg (LEO)8/2
U.S.Titan IV1989–200517,000 kg (LEO)35/4
U.S.Delta II1989–20186,100 kg (LEO)155/2
Europe (ESA)Ariane 41990–20037,600 kg (LEO)113/3
U.S.Pegasus1990–Present443 kg (LEO)39/5
RussiaRokot1990–Present1,950 kg (LEO)31/3
U.S.Atlas II1991–20046,580 kg (LEO)63/0
ChinaLong March 2D1992–Present3,500 kg (LEO)44/1
IndiaPSLV1993–Present3,800 kg (LEO)47/3
JapanH-IIA1994–201815,000 kg (LEO)40/1
Europe (ESA)Ariane 51996–Present10,865 kg (GTO)104/5
BrazilVLS-11997–2003380 kg (LEO)0/2
USSRDnepr-11999–20154,500 kg (LEO)21/1
U.S.Atlas III2000–20058,640 kg (LEO)6/0
JapanM-V2000–20061,800 kg (LEO)6/1
U.S.Minotaur 12000–2013580 kg (LEO)11/0
IndiaGSLV MK12001–20165,000 kg (LEO)6/5
U.S.Atlas V 4002002–Present15,260 kg (LEO)54/1
U.S.Delta IV Medium2003–Present9,420 kg (LEO)20/0
U.S.Delta IV Heavy2004–Present28,790 kg (LEO)12/1
U.S.Falcon 12006–2009180 kg (LEO)2/3
ChinaLong March 4C2006–Present4,200 kg (LEO)26/2
U.S.Atlas V 5002006–Present18,850 kg (LEO)27/0
IranSafir2008–Present65 kg (LEO)4/1
U.S.Minotaur IV2010–Present1,735 kg (LEO)6/0
Europe (ESA)Vega2012–Present1,450 kg (SSO)14/1
U.S.Minotaur V2013–Present532 kg (GTO)1/0
JapanEpsilon2013–Present1,500 kg (LEO)4/0
U.S.Antares2013–Present8,000 kg (LEO)11/1
U.S.Falcon 9 FT2013–Present22,800 kg (LEO)96/0
IndiaGSLV MK32014–Present4,000 kg (GTO)4/0
RussiaAngara 52014–Present13,450 kg (LEO)3/0
U.S.New Shepard2015–Present(Suborbital)14/0
New ZealandElectron2017–Present225 kg (SSO)17/2
U.S.Falcon 9 Heavy2018–Present54,400 kg (LEO)3/0
U.S.Starship2021–Present100,000 kg (LEO)0/0
U.S.SLS2021–Present36,740 kg (TLI)0/0

As the Space Race wound down, the U.S. proved to be the biggest producer of different rockets. The eventual dissolution of the USSR in 1991 transferred production of Soviet rockets to Russia or Ukraine. Then later, both Europe (through the European Space Agency) and Japan ramped up rocket production as well.

More recently, new countries have since joined the race, including China, Iran, and India. Though the above infographic shows many different families of rockets, it doesn’t include all, including China’s Kuaizhou rocket and Iran’s Zuljanah and Qased rockets.

Rocket Range Explained and Continued Space Aspirations

Designing a rocket that can reach far into space while carrying a heavy payload—the objects or entities being carried by a vehicle—is extremely difficult and precise. It’s not called rocket science for nothing.

When rockets are designed, they are are created with one specific range in mind that takes into account the fuel needed to travel and velocity achievable. Alternatively, they have different payload ratings depending on what’s achievable and reliable based on the target range.

  • Suborbital: Reaches outer space, but its trajectory intersects the atmosphere and comes back down. It won’t be able to complete an orbital revolution or reach escape velocity.
  • LEO (Low Earth orbit): Reaches altitude of up to ~2,000 km (1242.74 miles) and orbits the Earth at an orbital period of 128 minutes or less (or 11.25 orbits per day).
  • SSO (Sun-synchronous orbit): Reaches around 600–800 km above Earth in altitude but orbits at an inclination of ~98°, or nearly from pole to pole, in order to keep consistent solar time.
  • GTO (Geosynchronous transfer orbit): Launches into a highly elliptical orbit which gets as close in altitude as LEO and as far away as 35,786 km (22,236 miles) above sea level.
  • TLI (Trans-lunar injection): Launches on a trajectory (or accelerates from Earth orbit) to reach the Moon, an average distance of 384,400 km (238,900 miles) from Earth.

But there are other ranges and orbits in the eyes of potential spacefarers. Mars for example, a lofty target in the eyes of SpaceX and billionaire founder Elon Musk, is between about 54 and 103 million km (34 and 64 million miles) from Earth at its closest approach.

With space exploration becoming more common, and lucrative enough to warrant billion-dollar lawsuits over contract awards, how far will future rockets go?

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Misc

All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic

Our planet supports nearly 8.7 million species. We break down the total composition of the living world in terms of its biomass.

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All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic

Our planet supports approximately 8.7 million species, of which over a quarter live in water.

But humans can have a hard time comprehending numbers this big, so it can be difficult to really appreciate the breadth of this incredible diversity of life on Earth.

In order to fully grasp this scale, we draw from research by Bar-On et al. to break down the total composition of the living world, in terms of its biomass, and where we fit into this picture.

Why Carbon?

A “carbon-based life form” might sound like something out of science fiction, but that’s what we and all other living things are.

Carbon is used in complex molecules and compounds—making it an essential part of our biology. That’s why biomass, or the mass of organisms, is typically measured in terms of carbon makeup.

In our visualization, one cube represents 1 million metric tons of carbon, and every thousand of these cubes is equal to 1 Gigaton (Gt C).

Here’s how the numbers stack up in terms of biomass of life on Earth:

TaxonMass (Gt C)% of total
Plants45082.4%
Bacteria7012.8%
Fungi122.2%
Archaea71.3%
Protists40.70%
Animals2.5890.47%
Viruses0.20.04%
Total545.8100.0%

Plants make up the overwhelming majority of biomass on Earth. There are 320,000 species of plants, and their vital photosynthetic processes keep entire ecosystems from falling apart.

Fungi is the third most abundant type of life—and although 148,000 species of fungi have been identified by scientists, it’s estimated there may be millions more.

Animals: A Drop in the Biomass Ocean

Although animals make up only 0.47% of all biomass, there are many sub-categories within them that are worth exploring further.

TaxonMass (Gt C)% of Animal Biomass
Arthropods (Marine)1.038.6%
Fish0.727.0%
Arthropods (Terrestrial)0.27.7%
Annelids0.27.7%
Mollusks0.27.7%
Livestock0.13.9%
Cnidarians0.13.9%
Humans0.062.3%
Nematodes0.020.8%
Wild mammals0.0070.3%
Wild birds0.0020.1%
Animals (Total)2.589100.0%

Arthropods

Arthropods are the largest group of invertebrates, and include up to 10 million species across insects, arachnids, and crustaceans.

Chordates

The category of chordates includes wild mammals, wild birds, livestock, humans, and fish. Across 65,000 living species in total, nearly half are bony fish like piranhas, salmon, or seahorses.

Surprisingly, humans contribute a relatively small mass compared to the rest of the Animal Kingdom. People make up only 0.01% of all the biomass on the planet.

Annelids, Mollusks, Cnidarians, and Nematodes

Annelids are segmented worms like earthworms or leeches, with over 22,000 living species on this planet. After arthropods, mollusks are the second-largest group of invertebrates with over 85,000 living species. Of these, 80% are snails and slugs.

Cnidarians are a taxon of aquatic invertebrates covering 11,000 species across various marine environments. These include jellyfish, sea anemone, and even corals.

Nematodes are commonly referred to as roundworms. These sturdy critters have successfully adapted to virtually every kind of ecosystem, from polar regions to oceanic trenches. They’ve even survived traveling into space and back.

The Microscopic Rest

Beyond these animals, plants, and fungi, there are an estimated trillion species of microbes invisible to the naked eye—and we’ve probably only discovered 0.001% of them so far.

Bacteria

Bacteria were one of the first life forms to appear on Earth, and classified as prokaryotes (nucleus-less). Today, they’re the second-largest composition of biomass behind plants. Perhaps this is because these organisms can be found living literally everywhere—from your gut to deep in the Earth’s crust.

Researchers at the University of Georgia estimate that there are 5 nonillion bacteria on the planet—that’s a five with 30 zeros after it.

Protists and Archaea

Protists are mostly unicellular, but are more complex than bacteria as they contain a nucleus. They’re also essential components of the food chain.

Archaea are single-celled microorganisms that are similar to bacteria but differ in compositions. They thrive in extreme environments too, from high temperatures above 100°C (212°F) in geysers to extremely saline, acidic, or alkaline conditions.

Viruses

Viruses are the most fascinating category of biomass. They have been described as “organisms at the edge of life,” as they are not technically living things. They’re much smaller than bacteria—however, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, their microscopic effects cannot be understated.

The Earth’s Biomass, Under Threat

Human activities are having an ongoing impact on Earth’s biomass.

For example, we’ve lost significant forest cover in the past decades, to make room for agricultural land use and livestock production. One result of this is that biodiversity in virtually every region is on the decline.

Will we be able to reverse this trajectory and preserve the diversity of all the biomass on Earth, before it’s too late?

Editor’s note: This visualization was inspired by the work of Javier Zarracina for Vox from a few years ago. Our aim with the above piece was to recognize that while great communication needs no reinvention, it can be enhanced and reimagined to increase editorial impact and help spread knowledge to an even greater share of the population.

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Misc

Visualizing the Gravitational Pull of the Planets

This unique animation, created by a planetary astronomer, compares and highlights the gravitational pull of the planets.

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Gravitational Pull of the Planets

    Visualizing the Gravitational Pull of the Planets

    Gravity is one of the basic forces in the universe. Every object out there exerts a gravitational influence on every other object, but to what degree?

    The gravity of the sun keeps all the planets in orbit in our solar system. However, each planet, moon and asteroid have their own gravitational pull defined by their density, size, mass, and proximity to other celestial bodies.

    Dr. James O’Donoghue, a Planetary Astronomer at JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) created an animation that simplifies this concept by animating the time it takes a ball to drop from 1,000 meters to the surface of each planet and the Earth’s moon, assuming no air resistance, to better visualize the gravitational pull of the planets.

    Sink like a Stone or Float like a Feather

    Now, if you were hypothetically landing your spacecraft on a strange planet, you would want to know your rate of descent. Would you float like a feather or sink like a stone?

    It is a planet’s size, mass, and density that determines how strong its gravitational pull is, or, how quick or slow you will approach the surface.

     Mass (1024kg)Diameter (km)Density (kg/m3)Gravity (m/s2)Escape Velocity (km/s)
    Mercury0.334,8795,4273.74.3
    Venus4.8712,1045,2438.910.4
    Earth5.9712,7565,5149.811.2
    Moon0.0733,4753,3401.62.4
    Mars0.6426,7923,9333.75.0
    Jupiter1,898142,9841,32623.159.5
    Saturn568120,5366879.035.5
    Uranus86.851,1181,2718.721.3
    Neptune10249,5281,63811.023.5
    Pluto0.01462,3702,0950.71.3

    According to Dr. O’Donoghue, large planets have gravity comparable to smaller ones at the surface—for example, Uranus attracts the ball down slower than on Earth. This is because the relatively low average density of Uranus puts the actual surface of the planet far away from the majority of the planet’s mass in the core.

    Similarly, Mars is almost double the mass of Mercury, but you can see the surface gravity is actually the same which demonstrates that Mercury is much denser than Mars.

    Exploring the Outer Reaches: Gravity Assistance

    Knowing the pull of each of the planets can help propel space flight to the furthest extents of the solar system. The “gravity assist” flyby technique can add or subtract momentum to increase or decrease the energy of a spacecraft’s orbit.

    Generally it has been used in solar orbit, to increase a spacecraft’s velocity and propel it outward in the solar system, much farther away from the sun than its launch vehicle would have been capable of doing, as in the journey of NASA’s Voyager 2.


    Gravity Assist

    Launched in 1977, Voyager 2 flew by Jupiter for reconnaissance, and for a trajectory boost to Saturn. It then relied on a gravity assist from Saturn and then another from Uranus, propelling it to Neptune and beyond.

    Despite the assistance, Voyager 2’s journey still took over 20 years to reach the edge of the solar system. The potential for using the power of gravity is so much more…

    Tractor Beams, Shields, and Warp Drives…Oh My!

    Imagine disabling an enemy starship with a gravity beam and deflecting an incoming photon torpedo with gravity shields. It would be incredible and a sci-fi dream come true.

    However, technology is still 42 years from the fictional date in Star Trek when mankind built the first warp engine, harnessing the power of gravity and unlocking the universe for discovery. There is still time!

    Currently, the ALPHA Experiment at CERN is investigating whether it is possible to create some form of anti-gravitational field. This research could create a gravitational conductor shield to counteract the forces of gravity and allow the creation of a warp drive.

    By better understanding the forces that keep us grounded on our planets, the sooner we will be able to escape these forces and feel the gravitational pull of the planets for ourselves.

    …to boldly go where no one has gone before!

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