Orbital To Accelerate Antares Upgrade, Use Other Rockets to Meet NASA Commitments – UPDATE

Orbital To Accelerate Antares Upgrade, Use Other Rockets to Meet NASA Commitments – UPDATE

Update:  This article is updated throughout following Orbital’s investors teleconference this morning.

Orbital Sciences Corporation announced this morning (November 5) its plan for meeting its contractual commitments to NASA for delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in the wake of the Antares failure last week.  It will accelerate upgrading the Antares rocket to use a different engine and launch “one or two” cargo missions using other unspecified launch vehicles.  Using the new rockets, the Cygnus cargo spacecraft will be able to carry more each time and Orbital can meet its commitment with four rather than five more launches.

Orbital made the announcement in a press release and an investors teleconference with its Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson.  He said that there will be no cost increase to NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, modest or no near-term delays to the delivery of ISS cargo, and no expected material financial impacts to Orbital in 2015, although the magnitude and timing of quarterly changes depends on the specifics of the plan it chooses, or in 2016 and beyond.

Thompson said initial indications are that a turbopump-related failure in one of the two AJ26 main engines is the likely cause of the October 28 Antares failure that destroyed a Cygnus loaded with 5,050 pounds of supplies for the ISS.  Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract from NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS through 2016.  Eight operational cargo launches were planned to meet that commitment.  The October 28 mission was the third in the series, Orb-3, so five more were expected.  The launches are from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.

Suspicion immediately centered on the AJ26 main engines not only because the failure happened so soon (about 15 seconds) after the rocket left the launch pad, but because they are refurbished Russian engines built four decades ago.  Although they had successfully completed intensive testing prior to being certified for launch, in an investors call last week Thompson referred to ongoing technical and supply problems.  Today he said use of the AJ26 “likely” would be discontinued “unless and until” they can be shown to be reliable.

Orbital had been planning to switch to a different engine, but has not announced what the replacement will be.  Thompson again declined to identify the engine this morning.  When asked what criteria he was looking for in a new engine compared to the AJ26, he said reliability, followed by a balance of increased performance and reasonable cost.  The upgraded Antares was to be introduced in 2017, but that timeline will be accelerated to 2016.

To fulfill the rest of Orbital’s commitment to launch a total of 20 tons to the ISS by the end of 2016, Thompson said the company will conduct “one or two” Cygnus launches using launch vehicles from other providers in 2015 and perhaps early 2016, and then the upgraded Antares for the remaining launches in 2016.  The amount of mass Cygnus can launch was, in part, dictated by the capability of the Antares rocket.  Using the third-party rockets, the upgraded Antares and an “enhanced Cygnus” that already was planned to replace the original version, future Cygnus spacecraft will be able to carry more mass each time, about 3,300 kilograms instead of 2,600-2,700 kilograms, he said.  Thus the cargo requirements can be met with just four instead of five more launches.

He did not name what other launch vehicles the company is considering while waiting for the upgraded Antares to debut.  He said only that they were talking to two U.S. and one European launch service providers.   When asked specifically if he was considering launching Cygnus in the lower position on a European Ariane rocket, which can carry two payloads at a time, Thompson said no because the other payload most likely would be destined for a different orbit.  In the dual-payload configuration, Ariane typically takes communications satellites to geostationary orbit above the equator.  Cygnus would be headed to the ISS at 51.6 degrees inclination.

Thompson indicated that the cost savings of launching only four times instead of five would partially offset losses that the company might incur because of the failure that are not covered by insurance.  Thompson said “in key respects this plan follows the same upgrade path we were previously pursuing” and now “we will be able to make faster progress due to our ability to redirect both manpower and hardware from the original Antares configuration” to this one.

The company said today that repairs to the launch pad at Wallops will be undertaken quickly and launch operations with the upgraded Antares will resume in 2016.

A recording of the investors teleconference is posted on Orbital’s website.



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