NASA will not publicly release the results of its own investigation into the catastrophic failure of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched a Dragon resupply ship into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2015.
After saying it would release a summary of the agency’s investigation, NASA passed the buck to the FAA on an accident that destroyed $118 million worth of cargo the space agency was sending to the International Space Station (ISS).
“Since it was an FAA licensed flight, NASA is not required to complete a formal final report or public summary, and has deferred any additional products related to the matter at this time,” the agency’s Public Affairs Office (PAO) said in an email.
The Antares booster set to lift off on Sunday evening is a re-engineered version of a launch vehicle that exploded spectacularly after launch nearly two years ago.
The key change is the replacement of two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines in the first stage with RD-181 engines produced by NPO Energomash of Russia. The new engines are powered by liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene.
In October 2014, NASA engineers were deeply worried about Orbital Sciences Corporation’s upcoming Orb-3 commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
An Antares booster was set to send a Cygnus cargo ship loaded with 2,215 kg (4,883 lb) of supplies to astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory. It would be the third of eight Cygnus flights to the station under a Commercial Resupply Services-1 (CRS-1) contract worth $1.9 billion.
The IRT performed detailed analysis and review of Antares telemetry collected prior to and during the launch, as well as photographic and video media capturing the launch and failure. Based on this analysis, the IRT determined that the proximate cause of the Antares launch vehicle failure was an explosion within the AJ262 rocket engine installed in the Main Engine 1 position. Specifically, there was an explosion in the E15 Liquid Oxygen (LO2) turbopump, which then damaged the AJ26 rocket engine designated E16 installed in the Main Engine 2 position. The explosion caused the engines to lose thrust, and the launch vehicle fell back to Earth and impacted the ground, resulting in total destruction of the vehicle and its cargo. Figure 3 shows a single AJ26 engine stored on its transportation and processing skid. Figure 4 shows the aft end of a typical Antares launch vehicle with both AJ26 engines installed.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (NASA PR) — A NASA team that independently reviewed the unsuccessful launch last year of Orbital ATK’s third commercial resupply services mission intended to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) has completed its report and publicly released an Executive Summary of its findings.
As tensions over Ukraine continue to simmer, United Launch Alliance has taken steps to speed up the delivery of Russian RD-180 engines that power its Atlas V launch vehicle. Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, draft legislation being circulated in the House would prohibit the company from using those engines to launch any of the Defense Department’s crucial payloads.
These moves come as SpaceX is filing an appeal to a U.S. Air Force decision to award ULA a contract for 36 rocket cores for its Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. The company, which is seeking to open certain launches to competitive bidding, has attacked the sole-source deal as unfair, and criticized continued U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines for the launch of defense spacecraft.
Space News has an update on Orbital Sciences’ search for a new engine for its Antares launch vehicle:
The company also said it is evaluating three bids — two Russian, one U.S. — to produce main-stage engines for Orbital’s Antares rocket. The engines being offered include the Russian-built, U.S.-modified engine currently used for Antares.
In a conference call with investors, Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson said his company has a sufficient supply of the current Russian-built engines for three more years of Antares operations. Orbital has three Antares first-stage structures, built by a Ukrainian manufacturer, at an Orbital facility, with two more to be shipped soon.
Dulles, Va.-based Orbital has been hunting for an alternative engine supplier in part because the current Russian manufacturer, NK Engines,would need to restart long-ceased production activities to maintain a supply for Antares beyond the next few years. The engines are imported to the United States by Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, Calif., refurbished and sold to Orbital as the AJ26.
Thompson said it would take another two or three months to decide on a winning bidder, but that both the alternatives to the current supplier “may be preferable to continuing with our current engines.”
Once the decision is made, he said, Orbital will conclude a block purchase of engines to cover Antares launches between 2017 and 2020. Thompson said he has made clear to all three bidders that they will have to absorb any nonrecurring engineering costs associated with filling the order and then recover those costs over time through engine orders.
Editor’s Note: In Part 1, we took a look at the highly successful year that all three U.S. launch providers had in 2013. Today, we will look at the challenges ahead for each company.
Coming off a stellar year, each of America’s three launch providers — Orbital Sciences Corporation, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) — finds itself in a distinctly different place and facing unique challenges. The coming year could begin to significantly remake the global launch market, with significant consequences for all three players and rival providers overseas.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema has rejected motions from ULA and engine supplier RD-Amross to dismiss an anti-trust lawsuit brought against them by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Space Newsreports.
Orbital wants Russian RD-180 engines to replace the AJ-26 engines the company uses in its new Antares launch vehicle. However, ULA has exclusive use of the RD-180 engines for its Atlas V rocket through a supplier agreement with RD-Amross, which is a joint venture between United Technologies Corp. and NPO Energomash of Russia.
ULA and RD-Amross asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that Orbital has viable alternatives to the AJ-26 engines and that RD-180s cannot be sold to foreign parties without the approval of the Russian government. Thus, Orbital could not prove the $500 to $1.5 million in damages it is seeking over ULA’s monopoly.
A specially created joint venture, RD-AMROSS, between NPO Energomash and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, has already delivered 63 engines to the US worth $11-15 million apiece, reportedly 40 of them have already been used. In December 2012, a new contract was signed to deliver another 31 engines. But this contract is now being reconsidered by Russia’s Security Council, according to Izvestia.
On August 8, 2013 Orbital and its Aerojet Rocketdyne and NASA teammates successfully conducted a 54 second hot fire acceptance test of an AJ26 engine. The AJ26 used in this test will be one of two engines that will power the first stage of Orbital’s Antares rocket in its second mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) agreement with NASA. The mission, dubbed Orb-2, is scheduled to occur in 2014. The test was conducted at NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Reuters reports on a FTC investigation of United Launch Alliance for allegedly denying Orbital Sciences the ability to purchase RD-180 engines for the Antares launch vehicle:
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is investigating whether United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, violated federal antitrust laws by “monopolizing” or restraining competition through an exclusivity agreement with the maker of the engines used in its rockets, according to a FTC document obtained by Reuters on Wednesday.
DULLES, Virg. (Orbital PR) — In the two weeks following the successful debut fight of the Antares rocket on April 21, the program’s technical team gathered and analyzed large volumes of data collected during the A-ONE mission’s countdown, ignition and lift-off, and flight sequence. This data is used to validate that the launch vehicle’s propulsion, navigation and other major subsystems, as well as the supporting ground systems, all performed as designed.
The Antares team’s conclusion was definitive: the rocket’s first- and second-stage performance was right on the mark; the stage and fairing separation events were performed exactly as planned; and the data gathered from the heavily instrumented mass simulator payload confirmed Orbital’s engineering models that predicted a benign launch environment for Cygnus and other future satellite payloads in terms of the thermal, acoustic, vibration, acceleration and other measurements captured during the flight.
SACRAMENTO, Calif., Jan. 18, 2013 (Aerojet PR) — Aerojet, a GenCorp (NYSE:GY) company, announced today that its AJ26 engine successfully completed a hot fire test this evening at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.
Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE:ORB), Aerojet and NASA monitored the full-duration test in support of the Antares™ rocket program. This is the eleventh AJ26 engine to be tested at Stennis.
Russia is moving steadily toward a planned September launch of the stripped Soyuz 2-1v rocket designed to launch small satellites into orbit. Two tests last month verified key elements of the new rocket, Russian officials say.
On April 19, engineers successfully completed the first cold flow test of the first stage using liquid oxygen and kerosene. The test was done in preparation for the first first-scale test firing of the rocket set for later this year.
The following day, engineers at the United Engine Corporation completed the forth and final test firing of the first stage’s NK-33A engine at the Vintay facility. The company announced that the engine has fired without any problems for 157.5 seconds. The total firing time for the four tests is 600 seconds.