Capitalism in space: Because the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, Northrop Grumman yesterday announced that it has signed a deal with the rocket startup Firefly to replace the Russian engines and Ukrainian-built first stages on its Antares rocket.
Firefly’s propulsion technology utilizes the same propellants as the current Antares rocket, which minimizes launch site upgrades. The Antares 330 will utilize seven of Firefly’s Miranda engines and leverage its composites technology for the first stage structures and tanks, while Northrop Grumman provides its proven avionics and software, upper-stage structures and Castor 30XL motor, as well as proven vehicle integration and launch pad operations. This new stage will also significantly increase Antares mass to orbit capability.
The press release made no mention of launch dates. However, according to Reuters Northrop Grumman has purchased three SpaceX Falcon 9 launches in ’23 and ’24 to get its Cygnus cargo freighter into orbit in the interim and thus fulfill its ISS resupply contract with NASA.
After an earlier Antares failure the company (then Orbital ATK) had hired ULA’s Atlas-5 to launch Cygnus. ULA however is retiring the Atlas-5 after it completes its present full manifest, so this rocket was no longer available. ULA is replacing it with the Vulcan rocket, but that rocket is not yet operational due to delays in the delivery of its Blue Origin first stage engines. Thus, SpaceX was Northrop Grumman’s only viable option.
There is also a certain irony in the hiring of Firefly to replace the Ukrainian first stage. Firefly was saved from bankruptcy by a Ukrainian billionaire, Max Polykov. Though he has been forced to sell off his ownership in the company by the State Department, Firefly would not now exist to take this business from a Ukrainian company had Polykov not provided his financial help.
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