Orbital Eyes Next Antares Flight in July

Two RD-181 integrated with the Antares first stage air frame at the Wallops Island, Virginia Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF). A “hot fire” test on Pad 0A is scheduled for late 2015 or early 2016. (Credit: NASA/ Terry Zaperach)
Two RD-181 integrated with the Antares first stage air frame at the Wallops Island, Virginia Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF). A “hot fire” test on Pad 0A is scheduled for late 2015 or early 2016. (Credit: NASA/ Terry Zaperach)

Orbital ATK reported today that it is making good progress on its upgraded Antares rocket, which has been grounded since a catastrophic launch accident in October 2014.

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Orbital ATK Receives New Antares Engines; Launch Accident Report Nears Completion

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 has received the first two Russian-built RD-181 rocket engines for use in the company’s revamped Antares launch vehicle, the TASS news agency reports.

RSC Energia said the engines arrived in the United States on July 16 after being shipped from Russia the previous day. Energia is the managing organization for the engine’s manufacturer, NPO Energomash.

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Orbital, Aerojet Rocketdyne Disagree on Cause of Antares Explosion

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

After the explosion of an Antares rocket in October, NASA left the investigation in the hands of the company’s that bands of the company that built and launched the rocket, Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Orbital ATK). Yesterday, we got the first official word on what that investigation has found. And it’s very confusing.

Orbital ATK Executive Vice President Ronald Grabe said during the 31st Space Symposium that the failure was caused by excessive wear in the bearings of a turbo pump for one of the two first-stage AJ-26 engines supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

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Space Symposium Launch Vehicle Panel

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The 31st Space Symposium is taking place all week in Colorado Springs. It’s already generated some news, with ULA unveiling its new launch vehicle [here and here], Paul Allen demanding the company change the rocket’s name, and Rocket Lab showing off its electric motor.

I wasn’t able to attend this year, but I’ve been monitoring the events via Twitter.  Today’s most interesting session appears to have been a launch vehicle panel that included Aerojet Rocketdyne, Arianespace, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, SpaceX and ULA.

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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.

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2014: The Year We Realized Space is Hard (Part I)

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground. (Credit: NASA TV)

Sometimes things can go so well for so long that we forget – or try not to remember – just how difficult some tasks can be to achieve. Like getting to space, for example.

That reality was driven home during three days in October when an expendable booster exploded in Virginia and an experimental space plane crashed in the Mojave Desert in California. This is the first of a multi-part series looking at these accidents and their impacts.

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On Oct. 28, an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket exploded in spectacular fashion after takeoff from Wallops Island, Va. The rocket was carrying a Cygnus freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS) under a contract with NASA.

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Orbital to Replace Old Russian Engines With New Russian Engines on Antares

An Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket is seen as it launches from Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Thursday, January 9, 2014, Wallops Island, VA. Antares is carrying the Cygnus spacecraft on a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The Orbital-1 mission is Orbital Sciences' first contracted cargo delivery flight to the space station for NASA. Cygnus is carrying science experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and other hardware to the space station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
An Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket is seen as it launches from Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Thursday, January 9, 2014, Wallops Island, VA. Antares is carrying the Cygnus spacecraft on a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The Orbital-1 mission is Orbital Sciences’ first contracted cargo delivery flight to the space station for NASA. Cygnus is carrying science experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and other hardware to the space station. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

I guess Orbital Sciences Corporation can kiss any defense launches goodbye for its Antares launch vehicle. The company plans to replace the rocket’s Russian surplus AJ-26 engines with new Russian engines they hope won’t blow up during flight or be banned from export at some point in the future.

Designated the RD-181, the new engine will be used on Antares in shipsets of two to accommodate as closely as possible the two-engine configuration built around the AJ-26 engines supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, Orbital Sciences managers said Dec. 16.

A descendant of the RD-171 that powers the Ukrainian-built Zenit launch vehicle, the RD-181 will be manufactured in the same Khimki factory that builds the RD-180 used on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V. It closely resembles the RD-191 on Russia’s new Angara launcher and the RD-151 that powers South Korea’s Naro-1 launch vehicle.

In testing at Energomash, “the RD-181s have seen more than two times the Antares flight duration to date, and if you take a look at some of the heritage of this engine, the RD-151 and the RD-191 combined have over 10 hr. of test time for their configuration testing,” said Mark Pieczynski, Orbital’s vice president for space launch strategic development.

Like the AJ-26, the single-thrust-chamber, single-nozzle RD-181 uses liquid oxygen and refined petroleum (RP) as propellants, generating a sea-level performance in the two-engine configuration of 864,000 lb. thrust with a specific impulse of 311.9 sec. That is equivalent to the twin-nozzle RD-180, but the two engines are a better fit with the Antares main stage, built for Orbital by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash.

Congress has just voted to prohibit ULA from using Russian RD-180 engines in its Atlas V booster due to deteriorating relations with that country. That would seem to limit Orbital’s ability to bid for defense launch contracts unless there is a change in policy.

Read the full story.

Investigators Cite Turbopump as Likely Cause of Antares Failure

The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.
The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.

Space News reports that investigators have zeroed in on the cause of a spectacular rocket failure at Wallops Island last month:

Initial analysis of data from the Oct. 28 failure of an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket indicates that a turbopump in one of the two main engines on the rocket’s first stage malfunctioned seconds after liftoff, company executives said Nov. 5.

“Current evidence strongly suggests that one of the two AJ-26 main engines that powered Antares’ first stage failed about 15 seconds after ignition,” David W. Thompson, chief executive of Orbital Sciences, said in a conference call with financial analysts.

“At this time, we believe the failure likely originated in, or directly affected, the turbopump machinery of this engine,” he said, adding that more analysis was needed before the company could reach a definitive conclusion about the failure.

The AJ-26 engine, a refurbished version of the Soviet-era NK-33 engine provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, has been the focus of speculation about the failure since the accident. Video of the launch showed the plume from the engines brighten about 10 seconds after liftoff, followed by an explosion at the aft end of the first stage. The rocket then fell back to Earth, triggering a larger explosion that destroyed the rocket and the Cygnus cargo spacecraft it was carrying.

Read the full story.

Orbital Pushes Back ISS Cargo Flight By 1 Week

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo craft moves away from the International Space Station's robotic arm shortly after its release. (Credit: NASA TV)
Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo craft moves away from the International Space Station’s robotic arm shortly after its release. (Credit: NASA TV)

Mission Update – May 28, 2014
Via Orbital Sciences Corporation

Orbital has rescheduled the launch of its Antares rocket for the Orb-2 mission to a date of no earlier than (NET) June 17, 2014. Orb-2 is the second of eight cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station under Orbital’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

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Report: Antares AJ-26 Engine Fails During Static Fire at Stennis

AJ26 test firing. (Credit: Aerojet)
AJ26 test firing. (Credit: Aerojet)

NASASpaceflight.com reports on a failure of an AJ-26 engine during a static fire on Thursday:

One of the AJ-26 engines set to launch with a future Antares rocket has failed during testing at the Stennis Space Center on Thursday. Sources claim the engine “exploded” on a Stand located in the E Complex at the famous rocket facility. The failure is currently under evaluation, although it may delay the next Antares launch that is tasked with lofting the the ORB-2 Cygnus to the International Space Station (ISS).

Not a lot of details at this point.  I’ll update this post as more information becomes available.

Orbital Drops Lawsuit Against ULA

RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)
RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

Orbital Sciences Corporation has dropped its anti-trust lawsuit against ULA over the RD-180 rocket engine — at least for the time being.

“The parties will now undertake to negotiate a business resolution for Orbital’s access to the RD-180 rocket engine, subject to all necessary approvals from the U.S. and Russian governments,” Orbital said in the filing. “If a mutually agreeable resolution is not reached, Orbital will have the option to refile its lawsuit.”

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ULA, RD Amross Asks Court to Dismiss Orbital Lawsuit

RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)
RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

ULA and RD Amross LLC have asked the court to dismiss a $1.5 billion lawsuit filed by Orbital Sciences Corporation due to a lack of legal standing, the Denver Business Journal reports.

Orbital wants RD Amross to supply it with Russian RD-180 engines for its new Antares rocket. The company has refused, saying it has an exclusive agreement with ULA to supply these engines for the Atlas V rocket.

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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.

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Orbital Sues ULA Over RD-180 Engine, Asks for at Least $515 Million

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket is seen as it launches from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Sunday, April 21, 2013. The test launch marked the first flight of Antares and the first rocket launch from Pad-0A. The Antares rocket delivered the equivalent mass of a spacecraft, a so-called mass simulated payload, into Earth's orbit. Photo (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket on its maiden launch on April 21, 2013. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Orbital Sciences Corporation has sued ULA seeking damages of between $515 million to $1.5 billion for blocking sales of the Russian-built RD-180 that Orbital wants to use in its Antares launch vehicle, Space News reports.

Orbital of Dulles, Va., claims Denver-based ULA has not only illegally prevented open-market sale of the RD-180, but also has monopolized the launch-services market for certain satellites in violation of U.S. antitrust laws, according to a complaint filed June 20 with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria.

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Aerojet President: NK-33 Engines Can Be Put Back into Production

AJ26 test firing. (Credit: Aerojet)
AJ26 test firing. (Credit: Aerojet)

Space News is quoting Aerojet Rocketdyne President Warren Boley as saying the engine that powers Orbital Sciences Corporation’s new Antares rocket can be put back into production at a reasonable cost, adding an interesting wrinkle to an on-going anti-trust investigation of rival United Launch Alliance.

Antares uses two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines to power its first stage. The AJ-26s are refurbished Soviet-era NK-33 engines built for that nation’s long abandoned manned lunar program. The NK-33 engines are in limited supply because they haven’t been in production for 40 years.

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