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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Mining

Visualizing the Abundance of Elements in the Earth’s Crust

The Earth’s crust makes up 1% of the planet’s volume, but provides all the material we use. What elements make up this thin layer we stand on?

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Visualizing the Abundance of Elements in the Earth’s Crust

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Elements in the Earth’s crust provide all the basic building blocks for mankind.

But even though the crust is the source of everything we find, mine, refine, and build, it really is just scratching the surface of our planet.

After all, the innermost layer of the Earth, the core, represents 15% of the planet’s volume, whereas the mantle occupies 84%. Representing the remaining 1% is the crust, a thin layer that ranges in depth from approximately 5-70 km (~3-44 miles).

This infographic takes a look at what elements make up this 1%, based on data from WorldAtlas.

Earth’s Crust Elements

The crust is a rigid surface containing both the oceans and landmasses. Most elements are found in only trace amounts within the Earth’s crust, but several are abundant.

The Earth’s crust comprises about 95% igneous and metamorphic rocks, 4% shale, 0.75% sandstone, and 0.25% limestone.

Oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and iron account for 88.1% of the mass of the Earth’s crust, while another 90 elements make up the remaining 11.9%.

RankElement% of Earth's Crust
1Oxygen (O)46.1%
2Silicon (Si)28.2%
3Aluminum (Al)8.2%
4Iron (Fe)5.6%
5Calcium (Ca)4.1%
6Sodium (Na)2.3%
7Magnesium (Mg)2.3%
8Potassium (K)2.0%
9Titanium (Ti)0.5%
10Hydrogen (H)0.1%
Other elements0.5%
Total100.0%

While gold, silver, copper and other base and precious metals are among the most sought after elements, together they make up less than 0.03% of the Earth’s crust by mass.

#1: Oxygen

Oxygen is by far the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, making up 46% of mass—coming up just short of half of the total.

Oxygen is a highly reactive element that combines with other elements, forming oxides. Some examples of common oxides are minerals such as granite and quartz (oxides of silicon), rust (oxides of iron), and limestone (oxide of calcium and carbon).

#2: Silicon

More than 90% of the Earth’s crust is composed of silicate minerals, making silicon the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

Silicon links up with oxygen to form the most common minerals on Earth. For example, in most places, sand primarily consists of silica (silicon dioxide) usually in the form of quartz. Silicon is an essential semiconductor, used in manufacturing electronics and computer chips.

#3: Aluminum

Aluminum is the third most common element in the Earth’s crust.

Because of its strong affinity for oxygen, aluminum is rarely found in its elemental state. Aluminum oxide (Al2O3), aluminum hydroxide (Al(OH)3) and potassium aluminum sulphate (KAl(SO4)2) are common aluminum compounds.

Aluminum and aluminum alloys have a variety of uses, from kitchen foil to rocket manufacturing.

#4: Iron

The fourth most common element in the Earth’s crust is iron, accounting for over 5% of the mass of the Earth’s crust.

Iron is obtained chiefly from the minerals hematite and magnetite. Of all the metals we mine, over 90% is iron, mainly to make steel, an alloy of carbon and iron. Iron is also an essential nutrient in the human body.

#5: Calcium

Calcium makes up about 4.2% of the planet’s crust by weight.

In its pure elemental state, calcium is a soft, silvery-white alkaline earth metal. It is never found in its isolated state in nature but exists instead in compounds. Calcium compounds can be found in a variety of minerals, including limestone (calcium carbonate), gypsum (calcium sulphate) and fluorite (calcium fluoride).

Calcium compounds are widely used in the food and pharmaceutical industries for supplementation. They are also used as bleaches in the paper industry, as components in cement and electrical insulators, and in manufacturing soaps.

Digging the Earth’s Crust

Despite Jules Verne’s novel, no one has ever journeyed to the center of Earth.

In fact, the deepest hole ever dug by humanity reaches approximately 12 km (7.5 miles) below the Earth’s surface, about one-third of the way to the Earth’s mantle. This incredible depth took about 20 years to reach.

Although mankind is constantly making new discoveries and reaching for the stars, there is still a lot to explore about the Earth we stand on.

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Science

Draining the World’s Oceans to Visualize Earth’s Surface

More than two-thirds of Earth’s surface is covered by water and hidden from sight. This animation drains the world’s oceans to reveal the ocean floor.

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Draining the World’s Oceans to Visualize Earth’s Surface Share

Draining the World’s Oceans to Visualize Earth’s Surface

Although many maps of our planet go into great topographical detail on land, almost two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered by the world’s oceans.

Hidden from sight lie aquatic mountain ranges, continental shelves, and trenches that dive deep into the Earth’s crust. We might be familiar with a few of the well-known formations on the ocean floor, but there’s a whole detailed “world” that’s as rich as the surface, just waiting to be explored.

This animation from planetary researcher James O’Donoghue of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA simulates the draining the world’s oceans to quickly reveal the full extent of the Earth’s surface.

How Deep Does the Ocean Go?

Above sea level, Earth’s topography reaches all the way up to 8,849 meters (29,032 ft) to the top of Mt. Everest. But going below sea level, it actually goes deeper than the height of Everest.

Open ocean is called the pelagic zone, which can be broken down into five regions by depth:

  • 0m–200m: Epipelagic (sunlight zone). Illuminated shallower waters that contain most of the ocean’s plants and animals.
  • 200m–1,000m: Mesopelagic (twilight zone). Stretches from where 1% of surface light reaches to where surface light ends. Contains mainly bacteria, as well as some large organisms like the swordfish and the squid.
  • 1,000m–4,000m: Bathypelagic (midnight zone). Pitch black outside of a few bioluminescent organisms, with no living plants. Smaller anglerfish, squid, and sharks live here, as well as a few large organisms like giant squid.
  • 4,000m–6,000m: Abyssopelagic (abyssal zone). Long thought to be the bottomless end of the sea, the abyssal zone reaches to just above the ocean floor and contains little life due to extremely cold temperatures, high pressures, and complete darkness.
  • 6,000m–11,000m: Hadopelagic (hadal zone). Named after Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, the hadal zone is the deepest part of the ocean. It can be found primarily in trenches below the ocean floor.
  • To put ocean depths into context, the bottom of the ocean is more than 2,000m greater than the peak of Mount Everest.

    What “Draining” the World’s Oceans Reveals

    For a long time, the ocean floor was believed to be less understood than the Moon.

    The sheer depth of water made it difficult to map without newer technology, and the tremendous pressure and extreme temperatures make navigation grueling. A manned vehicle reached the deepest known point of the Mariana Trench—the Challenger Deep—in 1960, almost 90 years after it was first charted in 1872.

    But over the last few decades, humanity’s understanding and exploration of the ocean floor has grown in leaps and bounds. O’Donoghue’s animation shows just how much detail we’ve been missing.

    The first easily noticeable characteristic is the Earth’s continental shelves, which appear quickly. Most are visible by 140 meters, though the Arctic and Antarctic shelves are far deeper.

    The animation then speeds up, as thousands of meters of depth reveal the tops of small mountain ridges and aquatic islands. From 2,000 to 3,000 meters, mid-ocean ridges appear that span the length of the Arctic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.

    From 3,000 to 6,000 meters of ocean drained, these aquatic mountains slowly give way to the vast majority of the ocean floor. Little changes over the final 5,000 meters except to illustrate just how deep the ocean’s trenches reach.

    Of course, technically the bottom of the Challenger deep is the deepest known point of the Mariana Trench. As satellite and imaging technology improves further, and aquatic mapping voyages become more possible, who knows what else we’ll discover beneath the waves.

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