Orbital ATK Readies Antares for July 2016 Return to Flight

Orbital ATK Readies Antares for July 2016 Return to Flight

Orbital ATK President David Thompson said today that the new version of the Antares rocket will be rolled out to a launch pad at Wallops Island, VA next week in preparation for a hot fire test later this month and a return-to-flight launch in early July.   It will be the first flight of Antares since an October 28, 2014 failure.

A specific date was not provided. Thompson said only that it will be “just after” July 4.  If all goes well, a second launch is expected in the November time frame.   All of these launches are for NASA’s commercial cargo program, taking Cygnus spacecraft loaded with supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The launches take place from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.   MARS is owned by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, part of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Transportation.

While waiting for Antares to be fixed, Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus spacecraft on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral, FL.

The October 2014 failure occurred when the company was Orbital Sciences Corporation.  The mission was called “Orb-3,” the third of that company’s operational launches to ISS.  Orbital Sciences merged with ATK in February 2015, forming Orbital ATK (OA) and its cargo launches now carry “OA” designations.   OA-4 was launched in December 2015 and OA-6 in March 2016 on Atlas V rockets.  The July launch will be OA-5. (The numbers are out of order because Orbital ATK was expecting Antares to be ready earlier this year and be next after the Atlas V-launched OA-4.  Antares slipped, however, so the second Atlas V launch was next.  The company kept the mission designations as they were — OA-5 on Antares and OA-6 on Atlas V.)

The original version of Antares used Russian NK-33 engines built four decades ago and refurbished by Aerojet and redesignated AJ26.  Aerojet ultimately agreed to pay Orbital ATK $50 million to settle a dispute as to what precisely happened, the details of which are proprietary.

Orbital ATK replaced the AJ26 engines with new Russian RD-181 engines and it is that “re-engined” configuration that will be tested this month.

Antares is used to fulfill Orbital ATK’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to take cargo to the ISS.  The initial CRS award was for eight flights taking 20 tons of cargo to ISS through the end of 2016.  That contract has been extended to cover missions through 2018 and a CRS2 contract was awarded earlier this year giving Orbital ATK additional flights in the 2019-2024 time period.

SpaceX also won cargo flights under the original CRS and CRS2 contracts.  Sierra Nevada was added as a third supplier in the CRS2 round.

Thompson announced the Antares return-to-flight schedule during an investors conference call this morning on Orbital ATK’s first quarter 2016 financial results.  He also said that NASA has awarded the company a fourth extension flight under the original CRS contract for a launch in 2018.  He added that the NASA business provides a “solid foundation” for the Antares program through the mid-2020s and he is optimistic that other customers will come forward once the rocket is operational again.

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