Tag Archives: Orbital ATK

Using ICBMs to lower launch costs

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK is lobbying Congress to lift a ban on the use of decommissioned ICBM missiles for commercial launches.

Orbital ATK is pressing U.S. lawmakers to end a 20-year ban on using decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) for launching commercial satellites and the effort has raised concern among companies that have invested millions of dollars in potential rival rockets. Orbital Vice President Barron Beneski said in an interview on Friday that the company was pushing Washington to get the ban lifted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that sets defense policy for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1. The missiles were idled by nuclear disarmament treaties between the United States and Russia in the 1990s.

The company wants to use the solid rocket motors in the surplus missiles to increase the capability of their Minotaur 4 rocket, designed for the small satellite market. Interestingly, Virgin Galactic, who is aiming for this same smallsat market with its LaunchOne rocket, is protesting, and has even garnered the lobbying support of the industry’s trade organization..

“It’s a dangerous precedent when the government tries to inject itself in the commercial marketplace. It can be disruptive, and not for the right reasons,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington DC-based trade organization, said in an interview on Thursday.

Orbital ATK is not asking for exclusive use, so other companies could also obtain surplus missiles for their own use. However, the ATK in Orbital ATK’s name comes from the half of the company that before the merger was an expert in using solid rockets for space. This gives Orbital an advantage here that the other companies do not have, and explains their protests.

Nonetheless, I say tough. The government should surplus these rockets, and let the competitive chips fall where they may. Anything that lowers the cost to put payloads in orbit cannot be a bad thing for the launch industry, as it will serve to increase the number of customers that industry will have and thus help to increase everyone’s sales figures.

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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.

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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.

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Starting a fire in space, on purpose

Engineers plan to intentionally start fires in every Cygnus capsule heading for ISS this year, beginning with the next on Tuesday, but they will wait each time until the freighter has been docked, unloaded, and has left the station.

“The specific goals of the SAFFIRE experiments are to investigate the spread of a large-scale fire in microgravity, essentially trying to answer the questions of how large does a fire get and how rapidly does it spread, or how long does it take to get to the point of being really hazardous to the crew.”

NASA intends to run SAFFIRE experiments on three consecutive Cygnus spacecraft launching through the end of this year. The SAFFIRE 1 and 3 tests will use single samples 15.7 inches wide by 37 inches tall to watch the development and spread of a large-scale low-gravity fire. Scientists want to know if there is a limiting flame size and to quantify the size and growth rate of flames over large surfaces. “SAFFIRE is a box with a wind tunnel in it, a flow duct, that contains the sample that will be burned,” said Ruff. With two cameras poised to capture the fire, a hot wire along the upstream edge of the fiberglass-cotton fabric sample will trigger the burn that should last at least 15 or 20 minutes.

This is very clever, using the capsule as a fire test facility when it is on its way back to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere.

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Mold forces Cygnus launch delay

The discovery of mold in two clothing bags being packed for a Cygnus freighter launch to ISS has caused NASA to delay the launch by at least two weeks.

The source of the mold, a common fungal growth in humid climates like Florida’s, is under investigation by NASA and Lockheed Martin, which prepares NASA cargo for launch aboard two commercial carriers, Orbital ATK and privately owned SpaceX. An Orbital Cygnus cargo ship was more than halfway packed for the launch, scheduled for March 10, when the mold was found during routine inspections and microbial sampling, NASA spokesman Daniel Huot said.

The mold did not present any serious health threat should it have arrived at ISS, but it is definitely preferred to not fly it there if possible.

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New Orbital ATK rocket to compete for military launches

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK is developing a new mid-sized rocket designed to compete with ULA and SpaceX in launching Air Force military satellites.

It appears that they are going to use the contract the Air Force awarded them this week to build a new solid rocket engine to help finance this new rocket.

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SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada awarded contracts to ISS

The competition heats up: NASA has decided to award contracts to all three competitors, Orbital ATK, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada, in the second round of cargo contracts to ISS.

Or as Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork, take it.”

The main winners appear to be Orbital and SpaceX, with Sierra Nevada coming in later. Details at this moment remain vague, so stay tuned.

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Orbital ATK and SpaceX win Air Force contracts

The competition heats up: The Air Force has awarded Orbital ATK and SpaceX contracts to develop new rocket engines to help end the U.S.’s reliance on Russian rocket engines.

The Orbital contract is initially worth $47 million, with the company committed to spend $31 million of its own money., according to the Defense Department’s daily digest of major contract awards. Eventually the government could pay the company $180 million. SpaceX’s contract meanwhile was for $33.6 million initially for the development of its new Raptor upper stage engine, with a total government payment to be $61 million.

And that’s not all. Later today NASA will announce the winners in its second ISS cargo contract. The competitors are SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada. I am hoping the latter two win, since that would allow the construction of a fourth American spacecraft, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, capable of lifting cargo and crew into space.

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Competition for ISS cargo contract reduced to three

The competition heats up: With NASA once again delaying its decision on the next contract round for supplying cargo to ISS — this time to January — Boeing also revealed that NASA had eliminated the company from the competition, leaving only SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada in the running for the two contracts.

Earlier I had said that if the decision had been up to me, which of course it isn’t, I would pick Orbital and Sierra Nevada, since SpaceX and Boeing already have contracts to ferry crews to ISS. If you add Orbital’s Cygnus and Sierra Nevada’s reusable Dream Chaser, you then have four different spacecraft designs capable of bring payloads into orbit, a robust amount of redundancy that can’t be beat. When I wrote that I also noted that I thought it wouldn’t happen because Boeing’s clout with Congress and NASA would make it a winner.

With Boeing now out of the picture, it seems to me that the reason NASA has delayed its final decision again is that it wants to see what happens with the return to flight launches of Dragon and Cygnus in the next three months. A SpaceX Dragon success will cement that company’s position in the manned contract area, while an Orbital ATK Cygnus succuss will make picking them for a second contract seem less risky. In addition, maybe NASA wants Sierra Nevada to fly another glide test of its Dream Chaser test vehicle, and is now giving it the time to do so.

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NASA to decide on 2nd cargo contracts Nov 5

The competition heats up: NASA will announce the two contract winners for its second round of ISS cargo contracts on November 5.

If it was up to me to pick the two winners from the four companies bidding, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada, I would go with Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada. SpaceX and Boeing already have contracts to ferry crews to ISS with their Dragon and Starliner capsules. By picking Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsule and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle, NASA would then have four different ways to get payloads to ISS.

Sadly, the decision is not up to me. It is more likely NASA will pick SpaceX and Boeing. Boeing especially is likely to get picked because they are an established big player with lots of capital and influence.

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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.

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Next Cygnus to launch December 3

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK has scheduled December 3 as the date of the next Cygnus ISS cargo launch, using a ULA Atlas 5 rocket.

This is almost the same time that SpaceX intends to restart its Falcon 9 launches. Thus, the beginning of December should be quite entertaining.

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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.

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Lockheed Martin eliminated from ISS cargo contract competition

The competition heats up: NASA has eliminated Lockheed Martin’s bid for the second round of ISS cargo contracts.

This leaves SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and Orbital ATK in the running. While dropping Lockheed Martin reduces the number of competitors for the contracts, it increases the competition between them. The decision is now expected in November.

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ULA and Orbital ATK ink new rocket motor contract

The competition heats up: ULA has signed a new contract with Orbital ATK to provide solid rocket motors for its Atlas 5 and Vulcan rockets.

This deal is another nail in the coffin of Aerojet Rocketdyne, as it strongly suggests that the corporate leadership at ULA is very uninterested in doing any business with that rocket engine builder. Recently they have been taking their business every where but to Aerojet.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Problems at Stratolaunch

In the heat of competition: Stratolaunch and Orbital ATK have quietly parted ways as problems have developed in building Stratolaunch’s giant first stage aircraft.

The company went with a radical engineering idea — using a giant airplane as their first stage — which might turn out great but could just as easily become a disaster and failure. Such ideas are by their nature filled with many unknowns.

In a sense, this story validates SpaceX’s approach to developing new space technology, which is to take known engineering and to upgrade it while refining the production methods for building it to lower costs. With this approach, you lower risks by reducing the number of unknowns you have to deal with.

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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.

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