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.

Cygnus on Falcon 9?

The heat of competition: Industry rumors now suggest that Orbital Sciences’s first choice for launching its next ISS freighter Cygnus is SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The articles offers this explanation for why Orbital is favoring its chief competitor:

While flying on a competitor’s launch vehicle might be viewed as awkward, the decision could boil down to one simple determining factor – cost. It has been estimated that a flight on a F9 would set a customer back $62 million. By comparison, United Launch Alliance’s (ULA ) Atlas V 401 launch vehicle, a booster with similar capabilities to the F9, costs an estimated $100 million per mission. Moreover, SpaceX has a proven track record with the Falcon 9.

All true, but I can think of two more reasons SpaceX is the top choice.
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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.

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.

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.

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.

A decision in November on Orbital’s reliance on Russian engines in Antares

The competition heats up: Orbital Sciences has announced that it will make a decision in November on replacing the Russian rocket engine that it uses in its Antares commercial rocket.

In a presentation at the 65th International Astronautical Congress here, Orbital Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson said the engine decision is linked to the company’s proposal for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)2 competition. NASA issued the request for proposals for CRS2 on Sept. 26, with responses due Nov. 14. “We’ll make sure we’ll have a decision on that before we submit the proposal,” Culbertson said when asked about the status of the engine decision.

Orbital has been weighing for several months a replacement for the AJ-26 engines that Antares currently uses. Those engines, provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are refurbished versions of Soviet-era NK-33 engines originally designed for the N-1 lunar rocket developed in the 1960s.

The company is considering several proposals, including one from ATK, which is in the process of merging with Orbital at this very moment.

The article also notes that Orbital recognizes that the use of Russian engines will likely work against them in the competition to win the next ISS cargo contract, and that if they don’t have a plan to replace those engines it is quite possible that NASA will go with a different company, such as Sierra Nevada, when it awards that contract.

As I said already, oh how I love competition.

Antares to launch polar orbiting satellites?

The competition heats up: Orbital Sciences expects within a year to get government approval to use its Antares rocket to launch sun-synchronous satellites from its launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.

Currently Antares is used to launch cargo resupply missions to the international space station, whose orbital inclination — the angle at which it passes over the equator — of 51.6 degrees dictates that the rocket follow a southeasterly flight path over the Atlantic Ocean. To reach high-inclination orbits, the vehicle would presumably need to fly more directly toward the equator.

Among the details to be settled is the exact configuration of the Antares rocket Orbital would use to place satellites into sun-synchronous orbits, which are commonly used for Earth observation missions. The Antares rockets flown to date have been two-stage vehicles, but the company offers three-stage versions for missions with more stringent orbital-insertion accuracy or high-energy requirements.

The issue here is making sure the rocket stays clear of population areas during launch. An almost due south launch path, needed for polar orbit from Wallops Island, would pass this test.

Orbital plans upgrade to Antares

The competition heats up: On its next cargo mission to ISS Orbital Sciences plans on launching an upgraded Antares rocket.

For its third paid cargo mission to station, slated to launch Oct. 21, Orbital will replace the ATK Castor 30B Antares used for its latest launch with an ATK Castor 30XL. The upgrade will allow Cygnus to carry about 2,290 kilograms of cargo to station — an increase of nearly 40 percent by mass, compared with the second mission, according to Orbital’s Aug. 18 press release.

The Castor 30XL is the latest in the Castor 30 series ATK developed specifically as an Antares upper stage. A pair of Antares demonstration launches in 2013, which did not count toward fulfilling the company’s delivery-and-disposal contract with NASA, used the Castor 30A. ATK has lengthened subsequent versions of the motor, squeezing more power out of it by packing it full of more solid fuel.

Like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences is demonstrating the ability here to do operational missions simultaneously with developmental missions.

Cygnus launch

All is go for a 12:52 pm launch of Cygnus’s second operational cargo flight to ISS.

If you live on the east coast of the U.S. you should be able to see some part of this launch when it happens.

Cygnus has lifted off.

The main engine has cut off and the first stage has successfully separated.

The second stage has ignited successfully. It has now completed its burn and has separated from the spacecraft. Cygnus is in orbit.

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