Northrop Grumman Finds Non-Russian Alternative for Antares

Northrop Grumman Finds Non-Russian Alternative for Antares

Northrop Grumman announced today it is teaming with Firefly Aerospace to build an entirely domestic version of the Antares rocket. Right now Antares uses Russian RD-181 engines. In the aftermath of U.S. sanctions imposed after its invasion of Ukraine, Russia said it would no longer sell rocket engines to U.S. companies. Today’s deal means Northrop Grumman can continue to launch cargo to the International Space Station for NASA, although it reportedly will use a few SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets in the interim.

An Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft awaits launch at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The invasion of Ukraine upended most government and commercial space cooperation with Russia. Either Russia cancelled deals in retaliation for sanctions that were imposed or commercial customers and government partners suspended or terminated their arrangements.

In the case of rocket engines, Dmitry Rogozin, then head of Russia’s space state corporation Roscosmos, said in March that Russia would no longer sell RD-180 or RD-181 engines to U.S. companies: “Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know what.”

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) uses RD-180s for its Atlas V rocket, but responded it already has all it needs. ULA is building the new Vulcan rocket with U.S.-made engines because Congress passed a law after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine prohibiting national security launches — a core market for the Atlas V — on rockets with Russian engines.

The law did not affect Antares because it is not used for national security launches so Northrop Grumman didn’t need to find a non-Russian alternative.

Until now.

Developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation to launch Cygnus spacecraft full of cargo for the International Space Station, at first Antares was powered by four-decade-old Russian NK-33 engines that were refurbished by Aerojet and redesignated AJ-26. But the rocket failed on its third operational launch in 2014 just as Orbital Sciences was merging with ATK. Orbital ATK decided to replace the AJ-26s with new Russian RD-181s.

A Cygnus spacecraft about to be grappled by the International Space Station’s robotic Canadarm2, February 20, 2022. Photo credit: NASA

All the launches of that version, Antares 230, have been successful. Orbital ATK merged with Northrop Grumman in 2018. The most recent Antares launch, NG-17, was on February 19, 2022, just 5 days before Russian invaded Ukraine.

After Rogozin’s declaration, Northrop Grumman said it had enough RD-181s for all the remaining Antares launches under contract to NASA, but that was only two. Today’s announcement lays out the plan for the future not only for engines, but for the first stage, which is largely built in Ukraine.

Northrop Grumman will collaborate with Texas-based Firefly Aerospace. A new Antares 330 rocket will use seven of Firefly’s Miranda engines “and leverage its composites technology for the first stage structures.” The two companies also will team on building a medium-class rocket for the civil, commercial and national security space launch markets.

“Firefly’s propulsion technology utilizes the same propellants as the current Antares rocket, which minimizes launch site upgrades. The Antares 330 will utilize seven of Firefly’s Miranda engines and leverage its composites technology for the first stage structures and tanks, while Northrop Grumman provides its proven avionics and software, upper-stage structures and Castor 30XL motor, as well as proven vehicle integration and launch pad operations. This new stage will also significantly increase Antares mass to orbit capability.” — Northrop Grumman

Scott Lehr, Northrop Grumman Vice President and General Manager for launch and missile defense systems, said in a statement: “Through our collaboration, we will first develop a fully domestic version of our Antares rocket, the Antares 330, for Cygnus space station commercial resupply services, followed by an entirely new medium class launch vehicle.”

Firefly’s interim CEO Peter Schumacher said “Firefly prides itself on being a disrupter in the new space industry and collaborating with a proven space pioneer like Northrop Grumman will help us continue that disruption.”

Firefly has been working on a small Alpha rocket, but its only launch to date failed in September 2021. The company has been in the news because the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) required Ukrainian Max Polyakov to divest his shares in the company if it wanted to launch U.S. government payloads.

The statement provided no other details, such as when the Antares 330 would be ready to fly. Reuters reported, however, that Northrop Grumman is buying three Falcon 9 launches from SpaceX to use in the meantime.

Northrop Grumman did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Using another company’s rocket to launch Cygnus is not new. After the 2014 failure, Orbital ATK launched three Cygnus missions on ULA’s Atlas V while waiting for Antares 230 to come on line.


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