Orbital Says It Won’t Conduct Demo Flight of Upgraded Antares Rocket

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

Orbital ATK will  launch an upgraded version of its Antares launch vehicle next March with a full load of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) next March without first conducting a qualification flight to test out the booster’s new first stage engines, officials announced this week.

The company is targeting March 1 for an Antares launch of an extended version of the Cygnus freighter to ISS,  CEO David W. Thompson said. A test firing of the rocket’s engines will be conducted on the launch pad at Wallops Island in January.

The r0cket’s first stage will feature Russian-built RD-181 engines, which will replace the aging Soviet-era AJ-26 engine. The failure of an AJ-26 motor has been identified as the cause of a spectacular explosion of an Antares rocket in October that destroyed a Cygnus headed for ISS.

Prior to the next Antares launch, Orbital will launch a Cygnus freighter aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V. Thompson said Orbital will be ready to launch the supply ship in October as planned, but NASA could delay the mission into November to accommodate other ships visiting the station.

As for the situation in Ukraine, Thompson said Orbital has near full-time presence at the production facility that builds Antares’ first stage. He said there were no major issues in production despite reports of unpaid leaves among employees due to financial shortfalls.

Meanwhile, the Orbital-led investigation into the cause of the Antares crash in October in continuing. Reuters reports that debris left in the fuel tank could have caused the accident.

The sources said the preliminary findings suggest that a simple assembly mistake by Orbital ATK could have caused the explosion, which destroyed a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.

Orbital initially linked the explosion to a problem with the turbo pump in one of the two Soviet-era NK-33 engines that power the rocket. GenCorp Inc’s Aerojet Rocketdyne unit refurbishes the old motors and resells them as AJ-26 motors.

Orbital ATK on Friday acknowledged that so-called “foreign object debris” was one of more than a half dozen credible causes of the explosion, but said it was not “a leading candidate as the most probable cause of the failure.”

Orbital spokesman Barry Beneski said the company-led “accident investigation board,” which includes officials from NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, had not identified any evidence of mishandling of the flight hardware by Orbital.

He said Orbital continued to compare data from the October explosion with a May 2014 test stand failure of a different AJ-26 engine, and prior failures involving AJ-26 ground tests in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Read the full story.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    What could go wrong? I tell you, rockets today are unsinkable! Oooh, let’s steer close to that nice Italian island and give the passengers a nice view ….. Finances on Antares must be tight. If I were Space X, I’d have a falcon on a pad ready to fly at twice the price, and declare it a bargain.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    I understand that they are feeling the squeeze, after winning a butt load of money and then having their rocket go kaboom. But you shouldn’t rush these things. If it blows up again next year, they are in some serious hot water.

  • Michael J. Listner

    With brand new rocket engines the likelihood of another failure like the last is much smaller. Consider the reliability of the RD-180s and the RD-181s should prove to be equally reliable.

  • Andrew B

    If the terms of the CRS contract remain unchanged, Orbital will receive 80% of the payment for “new” Antares flight even if it blows up – and they will take out an insurance policy for the other 20% – why bother with a demo when there is no contractual reason to do so, and they will get paid regardless of if the cargo goes to ISS or ends up as crab food at the bottom of the Atlantic?

  • SpaceTech

    Foolish.

  • Jim R

    Not defending Orbital, but it’s not uncommon for new launch vehicle to carry actual payload in their first flight, most recent example is Falcon 9 v1.1, Atlas V and Delta IV also did this.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    No argument, and the list is long of failures who play that game. It’s just part of the crazy economics of space launch.

  • Valerij Gilinskij

    It’s good for the first commercial contracts. But we must see to it that it would not become a bad habit.

  • Valerij Gilinskij

    “Crazy economy space launches” will continue to be crazy, until the actual start of commercial activity in the orbit. Expand commercial infrastructure in orbit hindered by high prices for delivery of payload / man into orbit. COTS program and similar programs have to break this vicious circle. Therefore, programs like COTS should be more – for a variety of activities.

  • Pasi Jokela

    If one successfully launches a dumb “mass simulator”, the end result will be much the same as if one tried to launch low-value easily replaceable useful payload (consumables etc.) and there is a launch failure. OTOH, if the “test” launch is successful, it will free up payload capacity from more proven vehicles for more expensive cargo.

  • Charles Lurio

    Doug, where did you get the part about the Ukraine factory situation etc. above? I don’t see it in the Reuters story.

  • Sam Moore

    Commercial activity in orbit started in 1962.

  • Valerij Gilinskij

    With the fact of “Commercial Activity in orbit began in 1962.” bet is not possible.

    Can only draw attention to the fact that the GSO satellite communication requires one start ten years. A commercial space station from Bigelow would need ten launches per year. Creating a fuel depot in orbit we are, on the one hand, we get the ability to run heavy spacecraft in deep space and on the other we have to be regularly sent to LEO fuel tankers.

    Upside commercial activity in orbit huge and it is constrained primarily high price payload delivery/human orbit. SpaceX experience proves that this price can be reduced by ten times in the near future. And this is a new perspective in commerce space exploration.

  • windbourne

    Other than first stage, all of this has been tested before. If they are sending things like clothes that are easy to replace, it makes total sense.

  • Jeff Smith

    I wonder if the appropriate move on Orbital ATK’s part is to buy Yuzhnoye at a bargain price? Or better yet, just have the Ukranians government pump money into it so it will be a source of jobs! Either way, Orbital’s supply chain is very long.

  • Dima Samoilov

    If the root cause is, in fact, the “debris left in the fuel tank”, like Reuters article ascribed to yesterday, RD-181 will blow up just as easily as NK-33 did. It was all too easy to blame the engines back in October and say that Orbital was the victim of someone else’s negligence.

    The big question that remains is the circumstances of that debris going unnoticed (Uznnoe or OSC responsibility and ultimate blame).

  • Dima Samoilov

    Do you think it would be too much to ask Orbital to actually develop something on their own, just this once?

  • Jeff Smith

    I think another way to state that question is: Orbital, could be a little more like SpaceX? While I know what you are getting at, that just isn’t their culture.

    I’d personally rather see Orbital purely try their approach and watch SpaceX purely try theirs and see which is better.

  • Dima Samoilov

    I think that Tory Bruno, at his Atlantic Council speech last year, made a great remark about pros and cons of being a “thin integrator” by saying that “over time, your ability to integrate diminished due to your lack of knowledge of the technologies that you’re integrating.” I think he was talking about OSC there.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgYNcvJ1WCo#t=1561

  • DavidR2015

    Tell that to the Taurus XL team. They had a pair of consecutive launch failures on the same rocket, and NASA were not amused.

  • DavidR2015

    That has happened. The Spacex way won. With the merger with ATK, Oribtal are moving towards about 80% vertically integrated.

  • DavidR2015

    Just doing integration is also a bit boring. The component innovation isn’t done by you, you are just assembling things, with maybe a little bit of imagination now and again.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Have you looked at the prices COTS being paid for cargo to the ISS? Do you really think a private firm could afford those rates for a private space station?

  • ThomasLMatula

    And yet the demand for GEO satellites, there are 300 plus in service at any one time, did create a commercial launch industry once NASA was forced to get out of providing launches at “marginal cost only” prices. And it looks like demand is going to increase even more IF there really is race to build an viable Internet constellation, resulting in generating the volume needed to lower launch costs even more.

  • patb2009

    if the initial payload stream is consumables and modular spares, why not?

  • patb2009

    if the Root cause is “FOD”, then shouldn’t some NK-33’s go on the stand, to try and get confidence on that?

  • patb2009

    The bigger problem with doing integration is that margins compress.

  • Dima Samoilov

    Ultimately, the FOD-related root cause is still just a theory. OSC doesn’t have the luxury of spending the next year digging for answers while flying stuff on Atlas 5 rockets at $170 million a pop.
    In April of this year NASA will announce the winner(s) of the CRS-2 contract, and you can be sure that OSC is hoping to get a piece of that. Therefore, they need to have a plausible explanation for the accident that satisfies NASA and clears them of any negligence.

  • Gath Gealaich

    Remember that there was another engine failure on a test stand mere months before this failed launch. That one, if I remember correctly, was almost certainly not caused by a foreign object in the tank. So even if this accident was actually caused by a foreign object, the NK-33s still aren’t completely trustworthy. The move to the RD-181 is still a sane one, both because of reliability and because of sustainable supply.

  • ThomasLMatula

    So then there is no incentive other than pride to get it right, one of the key problems with government contracting by entities like NASA.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, the only thing at risk are tax payer dollars, so who cares about it…

  • SpaceTech

    Since when are “bagged desiccants” used to keep moisture out of anything in aerospace? Is this a Ukrainian practice?
    Normal practice is a positive nitrogen purge.

  • Hug Doug

    Aerojet has not stopped testing its AJ-series of rocket engine. the NK-33 and its derivatives are among the most tested rocket engines in history.

  • windbourne

    Thomas, what is being risked? Nothing. If it fails, then very likely osc will be done with future launch contracts.
    Seriously, I am good with this.

  • patb2009

    Lose too many and you won’t ever get commercial launches.
    Ask Long March.