Orbital ATK's New Antares on Track for March 2016 Launch

Orbital ATK's New Antares on Track for March 2016 Launch

Orbital ATK President David Thompson said today that the new version of its Antares rocket is on track for a first launch in March 2016.  The new version will use Russian RD-181 engines, two of which are undergoing acceptance testing right now.

An Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket intended to deliver a Cygnus cargo spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014.  The explosion damaged the launch facilities at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA.  It was the company’s third operational launch for NASA under the commercial cargo program.

Orbital Sciences Corporation merged with ATK in February 2015 and is now called Orbital ATK.  Thompson remains as President and CEO of the merged company and spoke today on a regularly scheduled investors conference call.

That version of Antares used different Russian engines, NK-33s, which were manufactured more than 40 years ago.  They were imported into the United States, refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne, and redesignated AJ-26. The engines were immediately suspected of causing the failure, but the results of the investigation into precisely what went wrong have not been released.   Reports in the trade press indicate that Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne disagree on the root cause.  While both reportedly agree that worn turbopump bearings were to blame, the question is why they were worn.  Aerojet Rocketdyne believes debris in the fuel was sucked into the engine from the first stage fuel tanks, which are manufactured by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash.

In any case, Orbital ATK decided to accelerate plans to change to a new first-stage engine and selected RD-181s built by Russia’s Energomash.  It is a variant of the RD-191 engine Russia developed for its new Angara family of rockets.  Two RD-181s are needed for each Antares launch.  Thompson said seven certification test firings were conducted between late March and early May and the first two flight engines are now undergoing acceptance testing with delivery expected in July.

He added that repairs to the launch complex will be completed in September, all of which means system testing can take place late this year and into January 2016.  First launch of the re-engined Antares is scheduled for March 2016, with one month of schedule margin.

Under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services-1 (CRS-1) contract, the company is required to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.  Thompson announced soon after the failure that at least one United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket will be used to send a Cygnus to the ISS later this year, with an option of one more in case there are delays in upgrading Antares, in order to meet that commitment.   NASA recently extended that contract for one more Orbital ATK launch (and three more SpaceX launches) in 2017.   Orbital ATK is vying for a follow-on NASA contract, Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS-2), for missions after 2017.  Thompson said today it is his understanding that four companies, including Orbital ATK, are competing for the contract.  Selection is expected in September.  (The bids are proprietary, but SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are widely thought to be among the competitors.)

Orbital ATK chose a Russian engine despite the ongoing debate over the use of Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V rocket.   Congressional direction that the Department of Defense cease using Russian manufactured engines by 2019 applies only to launches of national security satellites, not to NASA or commercial launches, so does not affect Orbital ATK’s launches of cargo spacecraft to the ISS for NASA.

In other news, Thompson was optimistic that Congress will not make the dramatic cuts to NASA’s earth science program recommended in authorization or appropriations bills now pending in the House.  Orbital ATK builds satellites as well as launch vehicles, including earth science satellites.  He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that by the time Congress is done with the FY2016 budget process, NASA will receive funding at about the level requested by the President with balanced allocations between exploration and science, including earth science.

The President’s request for FY2016 is $18.5 billion. The authorization and appropriations bills recommend the same level, but allocate it differently, with substantial cuts to earth science and other activities in order to pay for programs that are higher congressional priorities (such as a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa and the Space Launch System).

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