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I know of the Ariane 5 ECA, the Delta IV rocket and a few more, but which of the present day's rockets is the top heavy lifter, say, to low Earth orbit (LEO)?

Although it is not a certain fact, I would imagine that a very heavy lifter to LEO is also good for placing objects into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) and could be a good candidate for out of Earth orbit flight (for instance a trip to the Moon).

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John Paul, do you mean GTO or GEO? – Peter Mortensen Jul 23 '11 at 20:16
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The Saturn V payload mass to LEO was 118,000 kg. Wikipedia has a decent comparison of Super-heavy launch systems with a payload mass to LEO of 50,000 kg or more. None are in current use, and only two systems are in development.

There is also a "Heavy" lift launch system list which includes the Delta IV and Ariane 5 you mentioned. The top operational system is the Atlas V HLV with a mass to LEO of 29,420 kg and a Mass to GTO of 13,000. However, it has never been launched and the United Launch Alliance claims it needs a 30 month lead-time to produce the Heavy Launch Vehicle variant of the Atlas V.

Next on the list with mass to LEO/GTO:

  • Delta IV Heavy: 22,950/12,980 kg, 3/4 successful launches.
  • Proton: 21,600/6,360 kg (comparatively lower GTO due to launch location), 295/335 successful launches
  • Ariane 5: 21,000/10,050 kg, 54/58 successful launches.

So the answer is there are no currently operational launch systems which approach the Saturn V Mass to LEO capability.

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The Falcon Heavy seems to be available 2014:

It will lift 53000 kg from Cape Canaveral to LEO.

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