It’s Showtime for Revamped Antares Booster

Antares vertical on the launch pad on Wallops Island. (Credit: Orbital ATK)
Antares vertical on the launch pad on Wallops Island. (Credit: Orbital ATK)

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.

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Key Excerpts From NASA’s Investigation into Antares Failure

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

NASA Independent Review Team
Orb–3 Accident Investigation Report

Executive Summary

Key Excerpts

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.

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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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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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ULA Speeds Up Engine Deliveries as House Mulls Ban on Russian Motor Use

Capitol Building
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.

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Orbital Narrows Choices for Antares Engine Provider

Antares lifts off from Wallops Island. (Credit: NASA)
Antares lifts off from Wallops Island. (Credit: NASA)

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.

Read the full story.

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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Russia 2013 Space Year in Review

Expedition 37 takes off for the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)
Expedition 37 takes off for the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Russia once again led the world in orbital launches in 2013, keeping the International Space Station supplied with a study stream of crew members and cargo while earning hard currency with commercial satellite launches.

Although the vast majority of Russia’s launches were successful, the spectacular failure in July of a Proton rocket — which nosedived into the ground shortly after liftoff — accelerated efforts to reform the nation’s failure-prone space program. By the end of the year, the Russian space agency Roscosmos had a new leader and a major effort was underway to consolidate a large part of the bloated and inefficient space sector under a single government-owned company.

During 2013, Russia introduced a new variant of its venerable Soyuz rocket while also making progress on constructing a new spaceport in the Far East and developing a larger human spacecraft to replace the Soyuz transport and a heavy-lift booster to facilitate deep space exploration.

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U.S. Launch Companies at Crossroads in 2014

Cygnus is released from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)
Cygnus is released from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Part 2 of 2

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

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.

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Russia Successfully Launches Maiden Flight of Soyuz 2-1v

Russian Soyuz-1 booster. Credit: Pavel Kolotilov
Russian Soyuz-1 booster. Credit: Pavel Kolotilov

A Russian Soyuz 2-1v lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Saturday, successfully orbiting a satellite and two calibration spheres in the first launch of the new booster.

The “light” launch vehicle, which is designed to lift small payloads, is a significantly modified version of the venerable Soyuz launch vehicle that has been a mainstay of Soviet and Russian space programs since 1966.It maintains a similar outward appearance, but it is very different on the inside.

Modifications include the use of a NK-33 engine in the first stage, the elimination of four first-stage booster rockets, and the use of a Volga upper stage. The NK-33 engines are left over from the Soviet program to land men on the moon, which was canceled in the early 1970’s.

For its maiden launch, the Soyuz 2-1v orbited two SKRL-756 calibration satellites and the AIST-1 micro-satellite.

The new launch vehicle is capable of orbiting payloads weighing between 2,800 to 2,850 kg to low Earth orbit depending whether it is launched from the Plesetsk or Baikonur cosmodromes. Plans call for launching the booster from the new Vostochny spaceport now being constructed in the Russian Far East.

The Soyuz 2-1v was the 80th orbital launch of 2013 worldwide. There are no additional launches planned for the rest of the year.

Court Rejects ULA Motion to Dismiss Orbital Lawsuit Over Rocket Engines

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

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 News reports.

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.

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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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