Tag Archives: Antares

Orbital ATK delays Antares-Cygnus launch until September

In the heat of competition: Orbital ATK has once again pushed back the launch of the first upgraded Antares rocket since its launch failure in October 2014, this time until September.

Due to a variety of interrelated factors, including the company’s continuing processing, inspection and testing of the flight vehicle at Wallops Island, and NASA’s scheduling of crew activities on the International Space Station in preparation for upcoming cargo and crew launches, Orbital ATK is currently working with NASA to target a window in the second half of September for the launch of the OA-5 mission. A more specific launch date will be identified in the coming weeks.

This press release suggests that all is well, and that the delay is mostly because of scheduling issues with NASA and ISS. However, it is also very vague, which suggests to me that the company has been also working through the results of the static fire test they did in May and might have needed more time to work out the kinks..

Orbital ATK delays Antares launch until August

In the heat of competition: The review of Orbital ATK’s May 31st static fire test of its Antares rocket has caused the company to delay the upgraded rocket’s first launch until August.

Additional information pointed to data on “vibrations” during the Static Fire test that could be deemed as a problem for the vehicle’s avionics. A “fix” was already understood to have been approved.

Orbital ATK, while admitting the launch is slipping from its early July launch date estimate to a date likely to be in the August timeframe, pointed to trajectory evaluations as a specific relation to the launch date deliberations. “Final trajectory shaping work is also currently underway, which is likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe,” added Orbital ATK.

They expect to make a decision on launch date in a few weeks.

Orbital ATK successfully completes Antares test fire

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK today successfully completed a 30 second test fire of the first stage of its redesigned Antares rocket, using new Russian rocket engines.

The primary goal of the test was to verify the functionality of the integrated first stage, including new engines, modified Stage 1 core, avionics, thrust vector control and pad fueling systems in an operational environment. During the test, a number of operational milestones were met including full propellant loading sequence, launch countdown and engine ignition and shut down commands, as well as multiple throttle settings including full engine power. The test also validated the launch pad’s operation, including propellant tanking and the use of the water deluge system to protect the pad from damage and for noise suppression.

Orbital ATK will now purge and clean the engines of residual propellants and return the first stage used in this test to the Horizontal Integration Facility for full reconditioning prior to its use on the OA-7 mission slated for later this year. The Orbital ATK team will continue to prepare the Antares rocket that will launch the OA-5 mission, which is in the final stages of integration, systems testing and check-out in preparation for launch this summer.

They hope to launch a Cygnus capsule on Antares around July 6.

Antares static engine test scheduled

The 30-second static fire engine test of the Antares first stage and new Russian engine has now been scheduled for May 31.

The window for the engine test, or hot fire, is 5 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. EDT. Backup test dates run through June 5. Completion of the test will be noted on the Wallops’ Facebook and Twitter sites. During the test, the upgraded Antares dual RD-181 rocket engines will fire for 30 seconds at maximum 100% power (thrust) while the first stage of the test rocket will be held down on the pad. The hot fire will demonstrate the readiness of the rocket’s first stage and the launch pad fueling systems to support upcoming flights.

If all goes well, they hope to launch Antares with a Cygnus capsule in early July.

Upgraded Antares rolled to launchpad

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK’s upgraded Antares rocket, with new Russian engines for its first stage, has been rolled to the launchpad in preparation for its launch in July.

They plan to do a 30 second long hot fire engine test on the launchpad of the first stage engine to see if all works properly. If successful, they will then confirm the launch date in July.

Antares failure wipes out Aerojet’s 2nd quarter profits

The settlement between Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne over the failure of an Aerojet Russian engine that failed during an Antares launch has wiped out Aerojet’s entire second quarter profit.

The Rancho Cordova rocket engine maker reported a $38.1 million quarterly loss Tuesday, largely the result of a spectacular launchpad explosion last October that forced Aerojet to pay a hefty settlement to a key customer and prompted the end of a profitable supply contract. Aerojet, which has embarked on a cost-cutting program, said the third-quarter loss came to 62 cents a share. It compared to a year-ago loss of $9.9 million, or 18 cents a share.

The company’s stock has also been declining, probably linked to its loss of business to Blue Origin.

Cygnus grabs March Atlas 5 launch slot

The competition heats up: Taking advantage of delays in prepping a NOAA weather satellite, Orbital ATK has grabbed a March launch slot on the Atlas 5 for its Cygnus capsule.

Originally Orbital was going to launch on an Atlas 5 in December and then late in 2016 (based on Atlas 5 launch manifest availability), with the Antares launching a Cygnus in-between. By taking this March Atlas 5 launch, they can push the Antares return-to-flight launch back, thus giving themselves more time to install and test its new Russian first stage engines.

Orbital ATK cargo contract extended

The competition heats up: NASA has ordered two more cargo flights from Orbital ATK.

Orbital ATK, Dulles, Virginia, will fly two more missions under its 2008 contract for a total of 10 flights, according to Orbital ATK spokeswoman Vicki Cox. The company designated the missions OA-9e and OA-10e, Cox said. She declined to say when those flights will occur, although the company has said it plans to launch any new CRS missions it gets from NASA on Antares once it completes two deliveries using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket. The Atlas 5 launches are slated for December and early 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

NASA may also order additional cargo flights from its other CRS contractor, SpaceX of Hawthorne, California. “A modification is in work with both [CRS] providers,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz wrote in an Aug. 13 email. “Additional missions for SpaceX are still under discussion.”

That this contract extension occurs about the same time NASA decided to delay its decision on the second round of cargo contracts is probably not a coincidence. It suggests to me that the agency is probably seriously considering awarding one of the next contracts to a more risky proposal, such as Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. In that case, extending the present contracts gives them some additional margin should the new contractors have problems.

NASA postpones decision again for 2nd ISS cargo contracts

In the heat of competition: NASA has again delayed its decision on awarding its second round of contracts for providing cargo to ISS, delaying the decision from September until November 5.

The launch failures this year is the major reason NASA has held off making a decision. They need to see how both SpaceX and Orbital ATK react to the failures, as both have also bid for second round contracts.

Orbital ATK orders second Atlas 5 for launching cargo to ISS

In the heat of competition: Even as it has accepted delivery of two new Russian engines to power its Antares rocket, Orbital ATK has ordered a second Atlas 5 rocket to launch its Cygnus cargo capsule to ISS.

I suspect they want to give themselves some cushion time to test and install these new Russian engines prior to an actual launch. In order to fulfill their contract with NASA, however, they have to launch several times next year, thus requiring more replacements for Antares.

Russia delivers to Orbital ATK the first two new Antares engines

Even as Orbital ATK begins to wrap up their investigation into the October launch failure of their Antares rocket, Russia delivered on July 16 the first two new replacement engines.

The RD-181 motors will be used in the first stage of the rocket. They will replace aging AJ-26 engines the company decided to stop using after one of them exploded during a launch last October. The AJ-26s are revamped NK-33 engines left over from the Soviet Union’s manned lunar program.

The first launch of the revamped Antares booster is set for next March. The rocket will carry a Cygnus cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.

Though these Russian new engines will allow Orbital to get Antares back into operation, they do limit that rocket’s marketability in the U.S.

Russian rocket engines ready for shipment to U.S.

The competition heats up: An engine that Russia has developed for its Angara rocket has now been tested and is ready for shipment to the U.S. for use in the first stage of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket.

This new engine will replace the refurbished Soviet-era engines Antares had been using previously that had caused the October launch failure. Note also that since Antares is not a military rocket, it does not fall under the Congressional ban for Russian engines that limits their use on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket. As the article notes,

On Jan. 16, 2015, RKK Energia, parent company of NPO Energomash, announced that it had reached an agreement with the American company Orbital Sciences Corporation, OSC, on the export of RD-181 engines for the first stage of the Antares rocket, thus replacing the NK-33 engines previously used on the launcher. The contract, worth around $1 billion, was actually signed and ratified by the Russian government in December 2014. According to the document, a total of 60 RD-181 engines would be delivered to OSC beginning in June 2015.

This deal means that Antares will likely be back in business soon, though it will still be dependent on Russian-built equipment, which carries its own risks. It also means that Orbital ATK will not be able to sell Antares to the U.S. military, limiting its marketability.

Orbital signs deal for Russian engines

The competition heats up: Orbital Sciences has inked a deal with the Russian company Energomash to buy 20 rocket engines for its Antares rocket, with options to buy 40 more.

If Orbital ends up buying all 60 engines the deal will be worth one billion dollars to the Russians, which for them is a lot of money.

Orbital Sciences picks another Russian engine for Antares

The heat of competition: In its effort to replace the old Cold War Soviet-era refurbished Russian engines for the first stage of its Antares rocket, Orbital Sciences today announced that it will instead buy a different modern-built Russian engine.

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.

It appears that this is the only engine presently available that can do the job. In the long run however it puts Antares and Orbital Sciences at a competitive disadvantage. Even though the sanctions against using Russian engines, passed by Congress, only apply to military launches, Orbital’s continuing reliance on Russian engines will limit their customer base.

Orbital Sciences to use Atlas rocket to launch next Cygnus freighter

The heat of competition: Orbital Sciences today announced that they have contracted with United Launch Alliance to use Boeing’s Atlas 5 rocket to launch their Cygnus freighter to ISS while they reconfigure the first stage of Antares so that it no longer uses old Russian engines.

Antares hot fire test set for late in 2015

The heat of competition: In describing the damage and repair plans for the Wallops Island launchpad, this article notes that a hot fire test of the reconfigured Antares rocket, with new first stage engines, is presently scheduled for the end of 2015.

No word yet on what those new engines will be, however.

Wallops launchpad repairs to take a year

According to spaceport officials, it will take a year to repair the damage sustained by the launchpad at Wallops Island from the Antares launch failure last month.

The damage didn’t look that serious in the initial assessments. I wonder if this long repair schedule isn’t a negotiating ploy for funding.

Alternative rockets and 2015 launch dates for Cygnus

The heat of competition: Orbital Sciences has pinpointed available launch slots and alternative rockets for getting Cygnus into orbit in 2015.

[Orbital CEO David] Thompson said Wednesday the company has narrowed its options to three launch providers which have openings as early as the second quarter — between April 1 and June 30 — of next year. Two of the launch providers are based in the United States. Orbital could also launch Cygnus missions with a European-based company, Thompson said. The contractors under consideration are presumably United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and Arianespace.

Unlike Virgin Galactic’s claims in my previous post, I find Thompson’s prediction here quite likely. His main problem is not technical but political. He has to convince his competitors to help him, and this story is his first shot across the bow in that negotiation. By making these facts public, Thompson applies pressure on these other companies to agree. And though the request is unstated, he is also enlisting NASA’s aid, since the agency is certain to back him in this negotiation and apply its clout in his favor.

Solid rocket motors for American rockets?

The competition heats up: Even as ULA and Blue Origin begin work building an American engine to replace the Russian engines on the Atlas 5 rocket, ATK is offering its solid rocket motors for both Atlas 5 as well as Antares.

The company’s sales pitch is that they can get their product ready faster and cheaper. And since they are merging with Orbital Sciences anyway, I will not be at all surprised if Antares ends up with ATK solid rocket motors for its first stage.

As for Atlas 5, this sales pitch is actually aimed at Congress, which could step in and force ULA to buy ATK motors instead of Blue Origin’s new engine, even if this switch is against the wishes of ULA. As foolish as this might seem, the politics of pork (ATK provides more jobs than Blue Origin) could make it happen.

Turbopump failure in first stage engine eyed for the Antares launch failure

The investigation into the launch failure of the Antares rocket one week ago is now focusing on the turbopump in one of the rocket’s first stage engines.

“The Investigation Board (AIB) is making good progress in determining the primary cause of last week’s failure. A preliminary review of telemetry and video data has been conducted and substantial debris from the Antares rocket and its Cygnus payload has been collected and examined,” noted Orbital on Wednesday. “While the work of the AIB continues, preliminary evidence and analysis conducted to date points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines. As a result, the use of these engines for the Antares vehicle likely will be discontinued.”

It was later noted that the AJ-26 could still be used if they were proven to be completely flight-worthy.

If Orbital Sciences decides to completely cease using the Russian engines, it could mean a very significant delay before they can launch again, maybe several years. If they do that, I expect them to face contract penalties from NASA for the failure to deliver cargo to ISS on a reasonable schedule. It will also mean that their chances of winning a second contract will go down significantly.

They need to replace the engine, but they also need to keep launching. The article as well as a company press release today describes how they are exploring other launch vehicles, including the Falcon 9, to launch Cygnus, but I see no reason for them to completely abandon the Russian engines immediately. What they need to do is find what failed, fix it in the remaining engines, and keep flying while they scramble hard to replace the engine entirely.

A further update on Antares failure

A close look at the damaged launchpad from Tuesday’s Antares launch failure has confirmed both that it avoided significant damage and that the rocket debris being recovered there will speed up and aid in the failure investigation.

Also, the Ukrainian company that built Antares first stage has opened its own investigation of the launch failure.

Initial assessement of Wallops launchpad completed

The investigation into the Antares launch failure has completed its initial assessment of the launchpad.

More here. Overall, the pad’s condition sounds better than expected. To quote the Orbital press release at the first link above,

The overall findings indicate the major elements of the launch complex infrastructure, such as the pad and fuel tanks, avoided serious damage, although some repairs will be necessary. However, until the facility is inspected in greater detail in the coming days, the full extent of necessary repairs or how long they will take to accomplish will not be known.

The image at the second link above shows some of the damage, none of which looks devastating.

Updates on Antares launch failure

This link provides a summary of the post-accident press conference, while this link gives a good overview of the situation.

The value of having more than one cargo supplier has become immediately evident, as the scheduled December 9 launch of Dragon to ISS will go forward, and might have its cargo adjusted because of the Antares failure.

Antares launch failure

Immediately after lifting off from the launchpad this evening, Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded, falling back onto the launchpad.

We will have to wait for more details, but regardless this is bad news for Orbital Sciences. The bidding for the second round of cargo contracts to ISS is about to begin, and they will have competition from Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. This accident will hurt them.

I’ve embedded footage of the launch failure below. The damage to the launchpad itself could be the worst aspect of this, as it will cost Orbital Sciences a great deal of money and time to get the pad rebuilt.

Lawsuit could delay Cygnus cargo flight in April

A lawsuit between Orbital Sciences and one of its subcontractors threatens to delay the planned April launch of Antares/Cygnus to ISS.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 21 with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, centers around a roughly $2 million contract Orbital Sciences awarded in 2013 to defendants Integrated Systems and Machinery of Smithtown, New York, and its owner, Kevin Huber. The contract called for Huber’s company to build new gimbals and cylinders for the hydraulic system used by the slow-moving, truck-like Transporter Erector vehicle that hauls Orbital’s Antares cargo rocket and Cygnus space freighter out of their Wallops Island, Virginia, hangar and raises them vertical at their Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport launch pad over a kilometer away.

Orbital’s third cargo run to the ISS — which at press time was still slated to launch Oct. 27 — can proceed without the withheld hardware. However, Orbital is obligated under an agreement with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s host state to upgrade the Transporter Erector before launching its fourth contracted cargo run, the debut of a bigger, heavier Cygnus cargo tug.

I don’t really expect this dispute to delay the April launch. What we have here is a case of hardball negotiations, with the subcontractor using the situation to try to squeeze more money out of Orbital Sciences. In the end they will come to an agreement and the upgrade will be installed.

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