Much at Stake for Proton, Antares as September 15 Nears

Much at Stake for Proton, Antares as September 15 Nears

Purely by coincidence, if all goes according to plan September 15 will be a big day for a venerable Russian rocket recovering from a recent spectacular failure as well as a new U.S. rocket that is powered by Russian engines. A lot is at stake for both.

International Launch Services (ILS), the U.S.-based company that markets commercial launches aboard Russia’s Proton rocket, has completed its review of the July failure that doomed three Russian GLONASS navigation satellites. ILS said that it concurred with findings by a Russian investigation board that the failure was the result of improper installation of three attitude control sensors and set September 15 as the date for its next launch. The payload is an SES satellite, Astra 2E.

The Proton failure on July 1 Eastern Daylight Time (July 2 local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan) was the latest in a string of Russian rocket failures that has exasperated Russian government and industry officials from the Prime Minister on down. This failure was especially embarrassing not only because the dramatic crash 17 seconds after launch was aired live on Russian television, but because it was due to worker error in what was considered a virtually foolproof installation task. The head of the Russian space agency, Vladimir Popovkin, was publicly reprimanded by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, but not fired, essentially for dereliction of duty in properly overseeing the Russian launch industry.  Popokvin’s predecessor, Anatoly Perminov, lost his job when this succession of various rocket failures began with the loss of another Proton rocket carrying GLONASS satellites in December 2010. GLONASS is Russia’s equivalent of the U.S. GPS system.

A successful Proton launch could help restore confidence in the Russian space launch industry. A failure would add to the gloom and potentially drive commercial customers to competitors like Ariane, Sea Launch, and SpaceX.

Quite separately, the U.S. company Orbital Sciences Corporation is targeting September 15 for the first launch of its new Antares rocket to the International Space Station (ISS). Antares will launch Orbital’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS as part of NASA’s commercial cargo program. Orbital and SpaceX are the two companies competing in that program. SpaceX cargo flights to the ISS already are operational. Orbital is still in the demonstration phase. The September 15 launch will be only the second of its Antares rocket and the first for the Cygnus cargo spacecraft. (An Antares test launch earlier this year carried a Cygnus mass simulator.)

NASA is counting on Orbital to succeed with the Antares/Cygnus system to ensure adequate capability to resupply ISS crews. A failure would be a significant setback. NASA initiated the commercial cargo effort in 2006 after the George W. Bush Administration decided to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed. The ISS was designed to be resupplied by the shuttle throughout its operational lifetime, so an alternative was needed. Commercial cargo is premised on the idea that NASA would provide partial funding for two companies to develop new cargo space transportation systems and guarantee to purchase a certain amount of services from those companies. Competition between the two companies presumably keeps prices in check. SpaceX completed its demonstration phase with the Falcon 9/Dragon system last year and has launched two operational missions since then. The next is scheduled for January 2014.

Antares is powered by Russian NK-33 rocket engines built more than four decades ago for the Soviet Union’s unsuccessful effort to send cosmonauts to the Moon.   The NK-33s were designed for the Soviet N-1 rocket that failed during its four test launches in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  No new engines have been built since then.  The engines are refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26.    Because there is a finite supply, a debate is underway about future engines for Antares pitting the NK-33s against another Russian engine, the RD-180, and Orbital against United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA has an exclusive license with Russia’s RD Amross to use RD-180 engines for ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, but Orbital wants to be able to consider them for Antares. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether the RD Amross-ULA agreement violates U.S. antitrust laws.  Meanwhile, Russia’s Kuznetsov Design Bureau, which built the NK-33s, is considering restarting the production line to ensure a continuing supply and making them more competitive with the RD-180s.

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