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.
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