Tag Archives: Atlas 5

ULA wins contract to launch 2020 NASA Mars rover

NASA today awarded ULA the contract to launch in 2020 its next Martian rover.

The contract is for $243 million, which isn’t cheap, but I think NASA decided to pay the extra money because they used an Atlas 5 to launch Curiosity, and they have been attempting to simplify the 2020 mission by duplicating Curiosity as much as possible.

More evidence ULA will pick Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In a press interview published in late July, a ULA executive confirmed that the company is going to pick Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its new Vulcan rocket.

ULA used a Russian engine for its expendable Atlas V booster but has long relied on U.S. suppliers such as Aerojet Rocketdyne. For Vulcan’s reusable engine, ULA is turning to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The company’s cutting-edge BE-4 is powered by liquid natural gas instead of kerosene or liquid hydrogen.

By partnering with a startup like Blue Origin, ULA gains other advantages. “There is a world of difference between the culture at Blue Origin and the culture at Aerojet Rocketdyne,” said [Dr. George F. Sowers, ULA’s vice president for advanced programs]. “We knew we could absorb some of their culture by osmosis, just by working with them.” That influence shows up in cross-team collaboration. “We are literally breaking down walls to create a ‘Silicon Valley’ workspace,” Sowers said.

Sowers is very careful to say nothing about the Atlas 5 and the engine that will replace the Russian engine in its first stage. ULA originally signed its deal with Blue Origin with the Atlas 5 in mind, but has not made a final decision between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne because Congress appears to favor Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine, and Congress is a very big gorilla you do not upset. However, their development plans for Vulcan are incremental and closely linked with the Atlas 5. They plan to introduce Vulcan piecemeal in various upgrades of Atlas 5 as they go, so if they are set on using Blue Origin’s engine in the Vulcan rocket, it probably means that they plan on using it to replace the Russian engine in Atlas 5. This interview appears to confirm this.

ULA and SpaceX to compete for GPS launch

The competition heats up: ULA and SpaceX will likely face-off for the right to launch the Air Force’s next GPS satellite.

SpaceX won the last GPS launch with an unopposed bid of $83 million. ULA has said that their average price for an Air Force launch under the EELV program has been $225 million. I suspect that their bid here will be significantly less than that.

Atlas 5 successfully launches U.S. surveillance satellite

Atlas 5

The competition heats up: A ULA Atlas 5 rocket today successfully launched a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) surveillance satellite, dubbed NROL-61.

The image on the right is courtesy of Orbital ATK. From the link above:

NROL-61, however, launched atop an Atlas V 421 rocket, a configuration that has not previously been used by the NRO. The spacecraft itself was encapsulated within an Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF) – at 14 metres (46 feet) in length the longest of three available four-metre (13-foot) diameter fairings – which has also never before been used for an NRO mission.

…The most likely explanation is that NROL-61 will be the first in a new generation of Quasar satellite; which would appear to be larger in both size and mass than its predecessors. Quasar, also known as the Satellite Data System, or SDS, is a constellation of communications satellites operated by the NRO to support its other intelligence-gathering activities; relaying data from other satellites to the ground in real-time, without having to wait for the intelligence-gathering satellites to pass over ground stations on friendly territory. If NROL-61 represents a new version of Quasar, it will be the fourth generation of the constellation.

ULA chief says Congress deal clears path to Vulcan

The competition heats up: The CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno, said in an industry publication interview today that the Congressional deal that allows the company to buy 22 more Russian engines for its Atlas 5 clears the way for their eventual transition to the Vulcan rocket and an end to dependence on those Russian engines.

The article is worth a careful read, as it also provides a very detailed look at ULA’s future plans for its Atlas 5, Delta 4 Heavy, and Vulcan rockets. This paragraph was especially interesting:

The next major milestone is determining what engine will replace the [Russian] RD-180. Washington-based Blue Origin is developing the BE-4, a privately funded Liquid Oxygen (Lox) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) engine capable of 550,000 pounds of thrust (lbf); and California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne is creating the AR1, a government-supported Lox/Kerosene (RP-1) engine capable of 500,000lbf. Either replacement will require two engines to match the power of the RD-180. Blue Origin claims its engine, already four years into development, will be flight qualified by 2017, while Aerojet Rocketdyne, having started its development later, says the AR1 will be flight qualified by 2019. Bruno said ULA would make its decision soon.

“Sometime close to the end of the year we are going to down-select, and then move into our Critical Design Review (CDR) and start manufacturing the rocket,” he said.

I strongly suspect they want to go with Blue Origin’s engine, because it is more powerful, farther along in development, and almost certainly less expensive. The question will be whether pressure from Congress, which favors Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine for pork barrel reasons (Congress is funding it), will force ULA to go with it instead.

ULA pinpoints cause of Atlas 5 premature shutdown

In the heat of competition: ULA has completed its investigation into the premature shutdown of the Atlas 5 first stage during its March launch of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsule and has corrected the problem.

An extensive review of all post-flight data observations determined that at approximately T+222 seconds, an unexpected shift in fuel pressure differential across the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) and a reduction in fuel flow to the combustion chamber caused an oxidizer-rich mixture of propellants and a reduction in first stage performance. The imbalanced propellant consumption rate resulted in depletion of the first stage oxidizer with significant fuel remaining at booster engine shutdown. The engine supplier has implemented a minor change to the MRCV assembly to ensure the anomaly does not occur on future flights.

Engine hot-fire testing, extensive component and assembly level testing and analyses have been performed to confirm the findings. Detailed inspections and minor hardware replacement on all engines will support the current launch manifest.

They have now scheduled the next Atlas 5 launch for June 24.

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.

McCain agrees to compromise over Atlas 5 Russian engines

A deal struck today by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) will allow ULA to buy 18 more Russian engines for its Atlas 5, instead of the limit of nine that McCain had previously demanded.

The deal also includes a deadline of 2022, after which no more Russian engines can be purchased, even if some of the 18 have not yet been bought.

ULA sets dates for next Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Heavy launches

The competition heats up: ULA has finally scheduled its next Atlas 5 launch for June 24 after completing its investigation of the premature engine shutdown during the previous launch.

The link also provides information on the next Delta 4 Heavy launch, set for June 4.

ULA’s CEO explains why they are retiring Delta

Tory Bruno, the CEO of ULA, explained in an op-ed today why his company is discontinuing its use of Boeing’s Delta family of rockets and focusing exclusively on Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 and its eventual replacement, the Vulcan Centaur.

Delta is an amazing rocket, but it’s costly to produce. Its burnt-orange foam insulation has to be applied by hand. Its production line is bigger and more complex than Atlas’s. And its components are pricier.

Bruno’s purpose with this op-ed is to convince Congress to leave his company alone while they develop the new Vulcan rocket. Congress keeps proposing outlawing use of the Atlas 5 with its Russian engines, and Bruno does not want that, at least not until the Vulcan is flying. He is also trying to reduce his costs by discontinuing Delta, which in turn would allow him to lower prices for his Atlas 5 and compete more effectively with SpaceX.

Though I understand Congress’s concerns, I do find it sad that in modern America a private businessman has to lobby Congress for the right to run his company as he sees fit.

ULA shuffles Atlas 5 schedule

ULA has rearranged the upcoming launch schedule of its Atlas 5 in the wake of its investigation of the valve issue that causes a premature shutdown of the first stage Russian engine during the Cygnus launch in March.

Originally they had intended to do three launches before the September 8 launch of NASA’s Osiris-REX asteroid mission. Now they will only do two, to give them additional time to test the rocket that will launch Osiris-REX.

August will be spent stacking an Atlas 5 rocket with a single solid booster, the 411 configuration, and rolling the vehicle to the pad for a rare countdown dress rehearsal to ensure systems are operating correctly ahead of the time-sensitive launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe to asteroid Bennu.

The spacecraft has a launch window that closes October 12.

Next Atlas 5 launch delayed again

In the heat of competition: ULA has once again suspended future Atlas 5 launches indefinitely while it investigates the launch anomaly during the Cygnus launch several weeks ago.

The problem involves the system that delivers kerosene fuel to the rocket’s Russian-made RD-180 first-stage engine. Bruno said he expects to know within the next few days which components are suspect. Engineers have not found anything in the processing of the rocket for that launch on March 22 that was different from any previously flown, Bruno added. “We have a very good idea (of what the problem is), but we’re not quite done isolating it,” Bruno said. “I think in the next few days we should be able to say which components … we’re actually focused on.”

McCain challenges ULA cost figures for new engine

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has questioned the cost numbers that ULA has given the government for replacing the Russian engines it uses in the first stage of its Atlas 5 rocket.

ULA has been trying to convince Congress to let it use those Russian engines indefinitely. McCain wants their use discontinued, now. The result: a battle of numbers.

The real bottom line has really nothing to do with the Russian engines, however. The real bottom line is the bottom line itself: ULA has to quickly develop a rocket that costs less to launch, or else they will lose all their business to SpaceX. Their use of these Russian engines now in the Atlas 5 is really irrelevant, in the long run.

Aerojet Rocketdyne pitches its AR1 rocket engine to reporters

The competition heats up: At a space conference this week Aerojet Rocketdyne pitched its AR1 rocket engine, still under development, as the ideal replacement for the Russian engine in the Atlas 5.

The U.S. Air Force awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne a contract in February worth up to $534 million over five years to certify and start delivering flight-ready AR1 engines in 2019. Aerojet Rocketdyne says it already has kicked in $70 million, with its total investment expected to exceed $250 million over the life of the contract.

Van Kleeck, vice president of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s advanced space and launch business unit, said the Air Force contract — the largest of several propulsion-related awards the service has made in recent months — is a sign of the Air Force’s confidence in the AR1’s ability to provide an expedient replacement for the RD-180 engine the Defense Department is under pressure from Congress to stop using.

United Launch Alliance, however, has anointed Blue Origin’s methane-fueled BE-4 engine as the front runner to replace the RD-180 by serving as the main engine for the Denver company’s next-generation rocket Vulcan.

“The AR1 engine can fly both on an Atlas and Vulcan and it’s the only engine that can do so,” Van Kleeck said.

Aerojet has been losing business to the newer commercial space companies like Blue Origin, and desperately needs to find a customer for the AR1. In the long run the Air Force contract won’t suffice, as it really is no more than government corporate welfare and cannot sustain them as a company. This press conference was part of that effort.

Next Atlas 5 launch delayed indefinitely

In the heat of competition: Because of the continuing investigation into the launch issue during its last launch, ULA has now extended the delay of the next launch of its Atlas 5 from one week to an indefinite delay.

The report at the link is very brief, and it also does not give a source. I was not able to find any other reports of this story after doing a web search as well as a search of ULA’s website, so it remains unconfirmed. Nonetheless, I suspect it is real, suggesting the company has uncovered some unexpected issue with the Atlas 5 that now requires more serious action that is going to take time. Stay tuned.

Sierra Nevada favors Alabama for Dream Chaser’s commercial port

The competition heats up: At a workshop in Alabama this week Sierra Nevada’s vice president indicated that though the company has not yet finalized its decision, it is strongly leaning to picking Huntsville as the commercial spaceport for its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, being built to ferry cargo to ISS.

“There was a leap of faith on the Huntsville side that we would be a company that could get this vehicle built and start servicing the space station…,” Sierra Nevada Vice President John Roth said Thursday. “Yes, we have been approached by other airports for ventures. We’re not moving forward at this time with any of those. Right now, Huntsville is the only community we’re moving forward with a (landing) license on.”

A preliminary local study identified four hurdles to landing Dream Chaser at the Huntsville International Airport: required licenses for the craft and airport, environmental impact approval, Federal Aviation Administration approval of the landing path and possible runway damage.

Why do I sense the unseen hand of porkmeister Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) in this story? Could it be that one of the reasons NASA finally included Dream Chaser in its cargo contract was that the company had not only chosen the Alabama-based Atlas 5 rocket for its launch vehicle but was also courting Alabama for its commercial base, and Shelby had made it clear behind the scenes that he wanted that business? Could it be that Sierra Nevada is now returning the favor, having gotten the contract?

Don’t get me wrong. I think it was a good choice for NASA to give that contract to Sierra Nevada. I just think it important to note how giving some of our power away to politicians allows them to wield that power over us, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes against it, but always to make themselves more powerful. In the end, giving that power away is never a good option.

Fuel system on Atlas 5 linked to premature shutdown

An investigation into the early shutdown of the first stage engine on the Atlas 5 during last week’s Cygnus launch is now centered around the rocket’s fuel system.

Though they state that the system appears that it used its oxygen supply too quickly, the company has not released more details.

Premature shutdown of Atlas 5

In the heat of competition: The first stage Russian engine in the Atlas 5 rocket that put Cygnus in orbit this week shut down six seconds prematurely for reasons that are as yet unclear.

The early shutdown had no effect on the Cygnus mission, as the Atlas 5’s upper stage compensated for it by burning longer. Nonetheless, ULA has opened an investigation to find out what caused the early shutdown.

Atlas 5 launches Cygnus

The competition heats up: A ULA Atlas 5 rocket tonight successfully placed an Orbital ATK Cygnus freighter into orbit to resupply ISS.

This was the second time an Atlas 5 put Cygnus into orbit. The next Cygnus flight will mark the return of Orbital’s Antares rocket.

This Cygnus capsule contains probably one of the more interesting engineering experiments flown by NASA in years. When it leaves ISS in about two months they will ignite a fire inside it to study the way fires spread and burn in weightlessness.

ULA head rejects his engineer’s remarks about Aerojet Rocketdyne

The heat of competition: The head of ULA has disavowed his engineers’ remarks that plugged Blue Origin’s engine for the Atlas 5 while dissing Aeroject Rocketdyne’s.

The engineer was giving a talk at the University of Colorado this week where he made it pretty clear that ULA favors Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne, but had to make believe they were treating both companies equally in the competition to replace the Atlas 5’s Russian engines in order to keep the Air Force happy. Bruno is probably now doing some damage control, as the government still wants to justify the Aerojet Rocketdyne contract (whose only real purpose was as a government pork barrel jobs program). Considering all the money the Air Force and congressmen give to ULA, he has to keep them both happy. And telling the world that their Aerojet contract is a waste of government money is not a very good way to do this.

Nonetheless, he also admitted that Blue Origin is way ahead in development, and is thus most likely to win the competition anyway.

Blue Origin engine testing update

The competition heats up: Jeff Bezos has released an update on Blue Origin’s test program of its BE-4 rocket engine, being built as a possible replacement for the Russian engines in the Atlas 5.

Bezos’s final comment kind of explains why Boeing has favored them over Aerojet Rocketdyne for this engine:

One of the many benefits of a privately funded engine development is that we can make and implement decisions quickly. Building these two new test cells is a $10 million commitment, and we as a team made the decision to move forward in 10 minutes. Less than three weeks later we were pouring the needed three-foot thick foundations. Private funding and rapid decision making are two of the reasons why the BE-4 is the fastest path to eliminate U.S. dependence on the Russian-made RD-180.

I imagine however a lot of Congressmen are upset by this. If they do it too cheaply or too quickly there will be far less opportunity to spend pork in their districts!

ULA’s parent companies express caution about Vulcan

The competition heats up? The executives in charge of ULA’s parent companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, today expressed mixed support for the development of the Vulcan rocket, designed to replace the Atlas 5.

For more than a year, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been investing in the rocket on a quarter-by-quarter basis and the ULA board leaders said this week that the practice would continue. “We have to be prudent, disciplined stewards of any kind of investment,” Ambrose [Lockheed Martin] said. “Vulcan would be like any other investment decision.”

In September 2015, ULA’s leaders said a ban by Congress on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, which powers ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, was a leading driver behind the measured investment in Vulcan. But that issue was temporarily resolved in December, when Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) used a must-pass spending bill to eliminate the engine restrictions that had become law just weeks earlier.

Now, Ambrose pointed to “uncertainties” with launch policy, while Cooning [Boeing] said disagreements between lawmakers and the Air Force on the best approach for ending RD-180 dependence have given them pause, further justifying a “cautious and conservative approach.”

In other words, now that the law requiring a quick replacement of the Russian engine has been repealed, these executives feel less compunction to build Vulcan, something I had sensed in December and had commented on. As a result, they are telling us, in their tangled corporate ways, that they are not going to invest much of their own money on Vulcan, unless the government forks up a lot of cash for them to proceed.

1 2 3