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

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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.



  • Patrick Ritchie

    Looks like orbital already has a plan.

    Buy some flights on another rocket to fulfill their current contract while developing an upgraded Antares, possibly using the RD-193 (which was specifically designed to replace the NK-33). They mentioned 3 possible companies for the remaining CRS flights, 2 american and 1 european although not specifically called out I think that pretty much has to be ULA, SpaceX and ArianeSpace.

    Some details:


  • Andy Hill

    Launching Cygnus on Falcon 9 might be a cheaper option for them but they may be unwilling to use their main competitor’s rocket as a ride. Also may be some questions of proprietry information as SpaceX would have access to Cygnus.

    Not sure it would be a good idea to replace one Russian engine with another one in the current political climate, is there not an indiginous US engine that could be used?

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