I came across an article with the following infographic: GSLV MkII vs. MkIII vs. Ariane V infographic source

The GSLV rockets use solid/liquid engines as core stage and cryogenic engine as upper stage while the Ariane V rocket has an inverted configuration. What are the benefits/drawbacks for such arrangements performance or costwise?

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to SXSE! Take the tour Better remove "better" from your title asap! Questions that look like they are asking for, or require an opinion as an answer can get closed fairly quickly (don't forget to take the tour!). Also, since "better" could have different definitions, it could also get closed for "unclear what you are asking" or "too broad". Try to focus on something specific. Also maybe they are just different, and there is no "better" to begin with. See if you can adjust your question so that a clear, factual answer can be written. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 5:40
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh Is it ok to ask about the "preferred" configuration? I was trying to know the difference in approach by the two space agencies. $\endgroup$
    – Mahen
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for keeping an eye on your question and updating! You may still be asked to define what you mean exactly by "preferred". Launch vehicles developed by different organizations will differ for many reasons. Considering ISRO's rapid development they may have less direct historical experience to draw upon, so they may make different technology choices to keep the failure rate so low. So I would stick strictly with a comparison of benefits and drawbacks for each, and not try to rank them. ESA shouldn't build a GSLV, ISRO shouldn't build an Arianne. This is just my opinion though. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ The Vikas engine used in PSLV and GSLV is based on the Viking (designed by Arianespace for the Ariane 1-4). The GSLV concept has similarities with the Ariane 1-4 (storable lower stages, cryogenic upper stage). $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ Related: space.stackexchange.com/questions/18116/… $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2017 at 13:26

1 Answer 1


There are lots of tradeoffs at work here:

  • cryogenic stages are more difficult to design than storable liquid stages, so space agencies tend to start building storable liquid stages, then move on to cryogenics when they have some experience.
  • cryogenic stages offer higher performance (Isp) than storable liquid or solid stages.
  • solid stages can be simple, cheap and have very high thrust. They also vibrate more than liquid engines, and cannot be throttled or (easily) shut down early. This makes them less useful as the final stage of a launcher, when you need to achieve an exact orbit.
  • liquid hydrogen (as used in the Ariane 5 core stage) is not dense, so it requires a large tank, which reduces its performance advantage
  • a common compromise is to use a first stage with low Isp but high thrust (i.e. solid or storable propellant), and a second stage with high Isp. Ariane 5 does this, in a way: its solid boosters are the cheap first stage with high thrust.
  • the infographic lists the early Ariane 5G. Most Ariane 5 launches now use the ECA variant, which has a cryogenic upper stage with better performance than the 5G
  • Ariane in particular suffers from some decisions that were made early on to save money: the 5G upper stage used storable propellants because it was cheaper to develop than a cryogenic stage.

Ariane 5 allows us to make a pretty good comparison between storable and cryogenic propellants. The 2 versions of Ariane 5 have rather different performance:

  • GS payload to GTO orbit: 6,100 kg (13,400 lb),
  • ECA payload to the same orbit: 10,500 kg (23,100 lb).

This is despite the ECA upper stage being much heavier than the GS upper stage. I'll see if I can find development cost of these upper stages. One drawback of the ECA upper stage is that it cannot be restarted (another cost-saving measure), while the GS upper stage is restartable.

In general, all rocket designs are a tradeoff between:

  • design cost,
  • production cost,
  • performance.

Some launchers are designed for high performance (using expensive or finicky construction methods to save weight), others are designed for low cost (cheap to launch, despite being heavier than a high-performance design would have).

  • $\begingroup$ Does the difference in configurations affect the payload to the GTO (assuming similar performance)? $\endgroup$
    – Mahen
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ yes. I've added that to my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ Takeoff weight of the launcher as a whole is almost entirely unimportant (it affects how the launch pad is constructed and little else), so I quibble with that definition of "performance". $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2017 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking of e.g. the Centaur upper stage, which has a very low structural weight at the cost of making it more difficult to handle on the ground, vs. the Falcon 9 upper stage. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I see, you're talking more about dry weight. I thought you are on the "hydrogen has the best isp therefore all stages should be hydrogen" fallacy. $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2017 at 15:07

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