Orbital Marketing Antares to Commercial, Government Customers

A false color infrared image of the Antares launch. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
A false color infrared image of the Antares launch. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Buoyed by two trouble-free launches, Orbital Sciences Corporation is looking to market its new Antares launch vehicle beyond NASA’s commercial cargo program, Spaceflight Now reports.

“With two really good launches under our belt, things are picking up in terms of customer interest,” said David Thompson, Orbital’s chairman and CEO, in a conference call with investment analysts.

“The five-month interval between its first launch in April and its second launch in September gives us confidence both that the overall vehicle design is solid and that we are in a good position to carry out three more Antares launches during the next 12 months,” Thompson said Oct. 17.

With two missions completed, eight more flights remain on the Antares launch manifest through 2016. All of the launches are dedicated to delivering supplies to the space station under a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services, or CRS, contract with NASA.

According to Thompson, Orbital has at least two opportunities for Antares launch contracts in the next year.

Thompson said Orbital is aiming to launch three to four Antares annually by 2016, with that number rising to six per year by 2020.

To reach that flight level, Orbital must find engines for the first stage. Antares currently uses AJ-26 engines, which are refurbished Soviet NK-33 engines that were built 40 years ago for that nation’s lunar program. Aerojet Rocketdyne has a limited supply of these engines.

Orbital’s has the option of reopening the NK-33 assembly line. The Russian manufacturer is willing to do so. Neither party has publicly indicated what it would cost to do so.

Orbital would prefer to purchase Russian RD-180 engines, which ULA uses for its Altas V launch vehicle. These powerful engines are extremely reliable and have an extensive flight history. Purchasing engines that are already in production might be cheaper than re-opening an assembly line after 40 years.

However, ULA says it has an exclusive arrangement with the Russian supplier, and it has blocked efforts by Orbital to secure RD-180s. Orbital claims this amounts to restraint of trade. The Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation several months ago.

Meanwhile, there were rumblings out of Russia recently that the nation might ban the further export of RD-180 engines for national security reasons. It’s not clear how serious this treat is, but it is cause for concern because the U.S. military relies heavily on the Atlas V for satellite launches.