Next Cygnus Cargo Launch to Space Station Switched to ULA Atlas V

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In a complete change of plans from less than three weeks ago, NASA has asked Orbital ATK to switch rockets and launch the firms next Cygnus commercial cargo freighter to the space station on the tried and true Atlas V rather than their own Antares rocket – which just successfully delivered another Cygnus to the orbiting outpost with a hefty stash of science and supplies.

The altered schedule “provides margin flexibility for the entire Antares workforce” Orbital ATK noted in a statement to Universe Today.

However, the change of events comes as something of a surprise following the spectacularly successful nighttime blastoff of Antares on Oct. 17 with the Cygnus OA-5 resupply ship from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s picturesque Eastern shore – as I reported on from onsite.

At the time, Orbital ATK officials told Universe Today they were working towards efforts for the next Cygnus to launch from Wallops on the OA-7 resupply mission sometime next spring – tentatively in March 2017.

“Following a successful Antares launch for the recent OA-5 Commercial Resupply Services mission and subsequent rendezvous and berthing of the Cygnus spacecraft with the International Space Station, Orbital ATK has responded to NASA’s needs for enhanced schedule assurance for cargo deliveries and maximum capacity of critical supplies to the space station in 2017 by once again partnering with United Launch Alliance to launch Cygnus aboard an Atlas V for the upcoming OA-7 mission in the spring timeframe,” Orbital ATK said in a statement to Universe Today.

“We anticipate the earliest we may need a NASA commercial resupply mission is early 2017. We mutually agreed with Orbital ATK to use an Atlas V for the company’s seventh contracted cargo resupply mission to the space station in the spring. We will provide additional details at a later date,” NASA HQ public affairs told Universe Today for this story.

The Orbital ATK Antares rocket topped with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft launches from Pad-0A, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Orbital ATK’s sixth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
The Orbital ATK Antares rocket topped with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft launches from Pad-0A, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Orbital ATK’s sixth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

The ULA Atlas V would launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Cygnus OA-7 will be processed and loaded at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for later integration with the Atlas V.

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

When Cygnus launches on Atlas from KSC it can carry roughly over 300 pounds more to orbit vs. using Antares from Virginia.

The Cygnus OA-5 spaceship is currently still berthed at the million pound station and carried about 5100 pounds to orbit.

Thus the ISS is in good shape overall at this time from a supplies standpoint.

“Supplies and research investigations are at good levels aboard the International Space Station. In addition to Orbital ATK’s recent successful commercial resupply services mission to station in October, a Russian Progress and Japanese HTV will carry additional cargo to the orbiting laboratory before the end of the year,” NASA public affairs elaborated for this story.

Installation complete! Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft was attached to the International Space_Station at 10:53 a.m.  EDT on 23 Oct. 2016 after launching atop Antares rocket on 17 Oct. 2016 from NASA Wallops in Virginia. Credit: NASA
Installation complete! Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft was attached to the International Space_Station at 10:53 a.m. EDT on 23 Oct. 2016 after launching atop Antares rocket on 17 Oct. 2016 from NASA Wallops in Virginia. Credit: NASA

Last month’s ‘Return to Flight’ liftoff of the upgraded Antares took place two years after its catastrophic failure moments after launch on October 28, 2014 with another Cygnus cargo ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) that was destroyed along with all its precious contents.

And that may be the rub, along with the fact that launches by NASA’s other Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) provider – namely SpaceX – are on hold due to the catastrophic launch pad failure on Sept. 1.

Thus it’s not clear at this time when SpaceX can resume launching their Dragon cargo ships to the ISS.

NASA must have a robust and steady train of cargo ships flying to the ISS to keep it fully operational and stocked with research and provisions for the international crews to maximize the stations science output.

“NASA is continuously working with all our partners on range availability, space station traffic and other factors to ensure we operate station in a safe and effective way as we use it for preparing for longer duration missions farther into the solar system,” NASA PAO told me.

The Atlas V built by competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA) enjoys a 100% record of launch success and was recently employed by Orbital ATK to launch a pair of Cygnus vessels to the International Space Station in the past year – in Dec. 2015 on the OA-4 mission and March 2016 on the OA-6 mission.

Orbital ATK contracted ULA to launch Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS as an interim measure to fulfill their obligations to NASA to keep the station fully operational.

Orbital ATK Vice President Frank Culbertson had previously told me that Orbital ATK could readily launch future Cygnus spaceships on the ULA Atlas V again, if the need arose.

Seeking some near term launch stability NASA has apparently decided that that need has now arisen.

Both Atlas/Cygnus cargo missions went off without a hitch and provide a ready and working template for the upcoming OA-7 cargo ship to be processed again at KSC and launched from Cape Canaveral in the spring of 2017.

Orbital ATK says that follow on Cygnus craft will again return to the Antares rocket for Virginia launches later in 2017.

“Orbital ATK’s remaining missions to be conducted in 2017 and 2018 under the CRS-1 contract will launch aboard the company’s Antares rockets from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.”

On-Ramp to the International Space Station (ISS) with Orbital ATL Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter which launched on 17 Oct. 2016 and berthed at the Unity docking port on 23 Oct. 2016.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
On-Ramp to the International Space Station (ISS) with Orbital ATL Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter which launched on 17 Oct. 2016 and berthed at the Unity docking port on 23 Oct. 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

Altogether a trio of Cygnus vessels might launch in 2017.

“The company will be ready to support three cargo resupply missions to the station next year, and will work with NASA to finalize the flight schedule,” the company said.

“The schedule provides margin flexibility for the entire Antares workforce, who worked tirelessly for the past several months to prepare and successfully launch the upgraded rocket from Wallops Island on the OA-5 mission.”

Cygnus was designed from the start to launch on a variety of launch vehicles – in addition to Antares.

“This plan also allows NASA to again capitalize on the operational flexibility built into Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft to assure the space station receives a steady and uninterrupted flow of vital supplies, equipment and scientific experiments.”

Under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, Orbital ATK will deliver approximately 28,700 kilograms of cargo to the space station. OA-5 is the sixth of these missions.

It is not clear at this time who will shoulder the added cost of launching Cygnus OA-7 on Atlas instead of Antares.

Watch for Ken’s Antares/Atlas/Cygnus mission and launch reporting. He was reporting from on site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA during the OA-5 launch campaign and previously from KSC for the OA-4 and OA-6 liftoffs.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Cygnus cargo spacecraft atop Orbital ATK Antares rocket on Pad-0A prior to blastoff on Oct. 17, 2016 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Orbital ATK’s sixth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
Cygnus cargo spacecraft atop Orbital ATK Antares rocket on Pad-0A prior to blastoff on Oct. 17, 2016 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Orbital ATK’s sixth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

Antares ‘Return to Flight’ Blastoff Soars to Stellar Success

The Orbital ATK Antares rocket topped with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft launches from Pad-0A, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Orbital ATK’s sixth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
The Orbital ATK Antares rocket topped with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft launches from Pad-0A, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Orbital ATK’s sixth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – The ‘Return to Flight’ blastoff of Orbital ATK’s upgraded Antares rocket soared to a stellar success this evening, Oct. 17, on a space station bound mission to stock the orbiting outpost with two and a half tons of science and supplies.

The re-engined Orbital ATK Antares/Cygnus OA-5 mission lifted off at 7:45 p.m. EDT, tonight from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s picturesque Eastern shore spewing about 1.2 million pounds of liftoff thrust and brilliantly lighting up the evening skies in every direction.

Sporting a pair of more powerful new RD-181 engines, Antares roared off the launch pad somewhat more swiftly than the previous launches and consequently reached its preliminary orbit about one minute earlier.

Cygnus separated from the second stage as planned about 9 minutes after liftoff. The launch marked the first nighttime liftoff of Antares.

“It’s great to see launches to the International Space Station happening again from the Virginia coast – and it shows what can be accomplish with a close partnership of federal and state agencies, along with the U.S. industry, all working together,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“I am incredibly proud of what you have all done,” said Bolden in post launch remarks to the launch team at Wallops Launch Control Center. “Thank you for all your hard work.”

Antares launch on Oct. 17, 2016 from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: © Patrick J. Hendrickson / Highcamera.com
Antares launch on Oct. 17, 2016 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: © Patrick J. Hendrickson / Highcamera.com

This was the first Antares launch in two years following the rockets catastrophic failure just moments after liftoff on Oct. 28, 2014, which doomed the Orb-3 resupply mission to the space station – as witnessed by this author.

The weather was absolutely perfect at 100% GO by launch time and consequently was visible to millions of East Coast residents from the Carolinas to Maine as well as inland regions.

Visibility was aided by cloudless evening skies that afforded a spectacular long distance view of the engine firings for both the first and second stages, as the rocket accelerated to orbit in a southeastwardly direction before arcing over towards the African continent.

The power producing and life giving solar arrays were deployed and unfurled about two hours after liftoff, finished at about 9:40 p.m.

Cygnus is loaded with over 5,100 pounds of science investigations, food, supplies and hardware for the space station and its crew.

Antares launch on Oct. 17, 2016 from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: © Patrick J. Hendrickson / Highcamera.com
Antares launch on Oct. 17, 2016 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: © Patrick J. Hendrickson / Highcamera.com

After Cygnus arrives at the ISS on Sunday, Oct. 23, Expedition 49 Flight Engineers Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Kate Rubins of NASA will grapple the spacecraft with the space station’s 57 foot long Canadian-built robotic arm. It will take hold of the Cygnus,

Ground controllers will then command the station’s arm to rotate and install it on the bottom of the station’s earth facing Unity module.

The Cygnus spacecraft will spend about five weeks attached to the space station. Cygnus will remain at the space station until November, when the spacecraft will depart the station and begin a fire experiment dubbed Saffire-II.

The 14 story tall commercial Antares rocket launched for the first time in the upgraded 230 configuration – powered by a pair of the new Russian-built RD-181 first stage engines.

For the OA-5 mission, the Cygnus advanced maneuvering spacecraft was loaded with approximately 2,425 kg (5,346 lb.) of supplies and science experiments for the International Space Station (ISS). The cargo was packed inside 56 cargo bags of multiple sizes.

The experiments will support dozens of new and existing investigations as the space station crews of Expeditions 49 and 50 contribute to about 250 science and research studies.

Among the science payloads aboard the Cygnus OA-5 mission is the Saffire II payload experiment to study combustion behavior in microgravity. Data from this exp,eriment will be downloaded via telemetry. In addition, a NanoRack deployer will release Spire Cubesats used for weather forecasting. These secondary payload operations will be conducted after Cygnus departs the space station.

Here is the Cygnus payload manifest:

Payloads:
• Spacecraft Fire Experiment-II (Saffire-II)
• Fast Neuron Spectrometer
• ACM and Experiment Tray
• SLMMD
Cargo:
• ISS Experiment Hardware
• EVA Equipment– EMU Repair Kit– EVA Supplies
• Emergency Equipment
• Photo/TV and Computer Resources– Computer – iPad Air 2
– Laptop – T61P and Connectors – Camera – Nikon D4
• ISS Hardware and Spare ORUs – Cupola Scratch Panes
– Water ORU
• Food, Crew Supplies and Crew Provisions
• Flight Crew Equipment
• Cargo Environment SensorsAdditional payload details can be found at www.nasa.gov/iss-science.

Streak shot of Orbital ATK Antares rocket carrying Cygnus supply ship soars to orbit on Oct. 17, 2016  from Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
Streak shot of Orbital ATK Antares rocket carrying Cygnus supply ship soars to orbit on Oct. 17, 2016 from Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

The Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-5 mission is named the S.S. Alan G. Poindexter in honor of former astronaut and Naval Aviator Captain Alan Poindexter.

Under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, Orbital ATK will deliver approximately 28,700 kilograms of cargo to the space station. OA-5 is the sixth of these missions.

Watch for Ken’s continuing Antares/Cygnus mission and launch reporting. He is reporting from on site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA during the launch campaign.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Cygnus cargo spacecraft atop Orbital ATK Antares rocket on Pad-0A prior to blastoff on Oct. 17, 2016 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Orbital ATK’s sixth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
Cygnus cargo spacecraft atop Orbital ATK Antares rocket on Pad-0A prior to blastoff on Oct. 17, 2016 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Orbital ATK’s sixth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

The Orbital ATK Antares rocket, with the Cygnus OA-5 spacecraft onboard, is raised into the vertical position on launch Pad-0A for planned launch on Oct. 17, 2016, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
The Orbital ATK Antares rocket, with the Cygnus OA-5 spacecraft onboard, is raised into the vertical position on launch Pad-0A for planned launch on Oct. 17, 2016, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
2 Moons and Antares on the launch pad on the evening of Oct. 15, 2016 at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in this water reflection shot.  Liftoff of the OA-5 mission to the ISS is planned for Oct. 17, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
2 Moons and Antares on the launch pad on the evening of Oct. 15, 2016 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in this water reflection shot. Liftoff of the OA-5 mission to the ISS is planned for Oct. 17, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

First Antares Liftoff in 2 Years Targeted for Dazzling Nighttime Leap from Virginia on Oct. 13

Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before a launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before a launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The first Antares rocket liftoff in nearly two years is now being targeted for Oct. 13 on what is sure to be a dazzling nighttime leap from NASA’s Virginia launch base – and potentially offering a thrilling skyshow to millions of US East Coast spectators, if all goes well.

Top NASA and Orbital ATK managers formally approved the launch of the upgraded commercial Antares rocket for next Thursday evening, Oct. 13, on a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The announcement follows on the heels of a successful joint pre-launch Flight Readiness Review (FRR).

Blastoff of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket is slated for 9:13 p.m. EDT on Oct. 13 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s picturesque Eastern shore.

Antares will be rolled out to the pad 0A on Oct. 11 – two days prior to the anticipated launch date.

Antares will carry the Orbital OA-5 Cygnus cargo freighter to orbit on a flight bound for the ISS and its multinational crew of astronauts and cosmonauts.

The launch marks the first nighttime liftoff of the Antares – and it could be visible up and down the eastern seaboard if weather and atmospheric conditions cooperate to provide a spectacular viewing opportunity to the most populated region in North America.

The 14 story tall commercial Antares rocket also will launch for the first time in the upgraded 230 configuration – powered by new Russian-built first stage engines.

For the OA-5 mission, the Cygnus advanced maneuvering spacecraft will be loaded with approximately 2,400 kg (5,290 lbs.) of supplies and science experiments for the International Space Station (ISS).

“Cygnus is loaded with the Saffire II payload and a nanoracks cubesat deployer,” Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK Cygnus program manager, told Universe Today in a interview.

Among the science payloads aboard the Cygnus OA-5 mission is the Saffire II payload experiment to study combustion behavior in microgravity. Data from this experiment will be downloaded via telemetry. In addition, a NanoRack deployer will release Spire Cubesats used for weather forecasting. These secondary payload operations will be conducted after Cygnus departs the space station.

If Cygnus launches as planned on Oct. 13, it is scheduled to arrive at the station on Sunday, Oct. 16. Astronauts will use the space station’s robotic arm to grapple Cygnus at approximately about 6:45 a.m. EDT and berth it to the bottom of the station’s Unity module.

NASA TV will provide live coverage of the launch as well as the rendezvous and grappling activities.

Pre-launch seaside panorama of Orbital ATK Antares rocket at the NASA's Wallops Flight Facility launch pad.    Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Pre-launch seaside panorama of an Orbital ATK Antares rocket at the NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-5 mission is named the S.S. Alan G. Poindexter in honor of former astronaut and Naval Aviator Captain Alan Poindexter.

Under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, Orbital ATK will deliver approximately 28,700 kilograms of cargo to the space station. OA-5 is the sixth of these missions.

The 2 year lull in Antares launches followed the rockets immediate grounding after its catastrophic failure just moments after liftoff on Oct. 28, 2014 that doomed the Orb-3 resupply mission to the space station – as witnessed by this author.

First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK’s Antares commercial rocket had to be overhauled with the completely new RD-181 first stage engines following the destruction of the Antares rocket and Cygnus supply ship two years ago.

The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016.  New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016. New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In light of the grounding of the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon cargo flights following the catastrophic Sept.1 launch pad disaster, and the catastrophic Antares launch failure in Oct. 2014, this Orbital ATK mission becomes more critical than ever to keep that station stocked and fully operational for the resident crews with a reliable American supply train.

Aerial view of NASA Wallops launch site on Virginia shore shows launch pads for both suborbital and orbital rockets. The Antares rocket Pad 0A for missions to the ISS is in the foreground.  Suborbital rockets blast off just behind the Pad 0A water tower. This photo was snapped from on top of Pad 0B that launched NASA‘s LADEE orbiter to the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Aerial view of NASA Wallops launch site on Virginia shore shows launch pads for both suborbital and orbital rockets. The Antares rocket Pad 0A for missions to the ISS is in the foreground. Suborbital rockets blast off just behind the Pad 0A water tower. This photo was snapped from on top of Pad 0B that launched NASA‘s LADEE orbiter to the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

In the meantime, Orbital ATK has successfully resumed launches of their Cygnus cargo freighters to the ISS utilizing the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket as an interim measure until Antares is returned to flight status

They utilized the ULA Atlas V rocket to successfully deliver two Cygnus vessels to the ISS on the OA-4 flight in Dec 2015 and OA-6 flight in March 2016.

Watch for Ken’s continuing Antares/Cygnus mission and launch reporting. He will be reporting from on site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA during the launch campaign.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Aerial view of an Orbital ATK Antares rocket on launch pad at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A located at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.  Credit: Patrick J. Hendrickson / Highcamera.com
Aerial view of an Orbital ATK Antares rocket on launch pad at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Patrick J. Hendrickson / Highcamera.com

Antares Return to Flight Launch Likely Slips to August, Cygnus Completes Atmospheric Reentry

Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before the first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before the first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The long awaited maiden launch of Orbital ATK’s revamped Antares commercial rocket utilizing new first stage engines, from its Virginia launch base, will likely slip from July to August a company spokesperson confirmed to Universe Today.

The target date for the ‘Return to Flight’ launch of Antares on a cargo resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is “likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe,” Orbital ATK spokeswoman Sean Wilson told Universe Today.

The company had most recently been aiming towards an Antares launch date around July 6 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility – for its next NASA contracted mission to stock the ISS via the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighter on a flight known as OA-5.

Meanwhile the firms most recently launched Cygnus OA-6 cargo ship departed the space station and completed its planned destructive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday, June 22.

But before Orbital ATK can resume Antares/Cygnus cargo flights to the ISS, it had to successfully hurdle through a critically important milestone on the path to orbit – namely a static hot fire test of the significantly modified first stage to confirm that its qualified for launch.

Orbital ATK conducted a full-power test of the upgraded first stage propulsion system of its Antares rocket on May 31, 2016 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A.  Credit: NASA/Orbital ATK
Orbital ATK conducted a full-power test of the upgraded first stage propulsion system of its Antares rocket on May 31, 2016 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A. Credit: NASA/Orbital ATK

To that end the aerospace firm recently completed a successful 30 second long test firing of the re-engined first stage on May 31 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Launch Pad 0A – as I reported here earlier.

A thorough analysis of the hot fire test results and its implications is underway.

“Our Antares team recently completed a successful stage test and is wrapping up the test data analysis,” Wilson said.

“Final trajectory shaping work is also currently underway, which is likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe.”

In the meantime, company engineers continue to ready the rocket and payload.

“We are continuing to prepare for the upcoming launch of the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-5 cargo logistics mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility,” Wilson noted.

It’s also clear that a decision on a launch date target is some weeks away and depends on the busy upcoming manifest of other ISS missions coming and going.

“A final decision on the mission schedule, which takes into account the space station traffic schedule and cargo requirements, will be made in conjunction with NASA in the next several weeks.”

And it also must take into account the launch of the intervening SpaceX ISS cargo flight that was just postponed two days to no earlier than July 18.

Another factor is the delayed launch of the next manned crew on a Russian Soyuz capsule from late June into July. Blastoff of the three person crew from Russia, the US and Japan is set for July 7. OA-5 will deliver some 3 tons of science experiments and crew supplies.

First stage of Orbital ATK Antares rocket outfitted with new RD-181 engines stands erect at Launch Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming May 31 hot fire engine test. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
First stage of Orbital ATK Antares rocket outfitted with new RD-181 engines stands erect at Launch Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the May 31 hot fire engine test. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Antares launches had immediately ground to a halt following a devastating launch failure 20 months ago which destroyed the rocket and its critical payload of space station science and supplies for NASA in a huge fireball just seconds after blastoff – as witnessed by this author.

As a direct result consequence of the catastrophic launch disaster, Orbital STK managers decided to outfit the Antares medium-class rocket with new first stage RD-181 engines built in Russia.

Base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The RD-181 replaces the previously used AJ26 engines which failed moments after liftoff during the last launch on Oct. 28, 2014 resulting in a catastrophic loss of the rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter.

The RD-181 flight engines are built by Energomash in Russia and had to be successfully tested via the static hot fire test to ensure their readiness.

As a result of switching to the new RD-181 engines, the first stage also had to be modified to incorporate new thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines between the engines and core stage structure, Mike Pinkston, Orbital ATK General Manager and Vice President, Antares Program told me in a prior interview.

The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016.  New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016. New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So the primary goal of the stage test was to confirm the effectiveness of the new engines and all the changes in the integrated rocket stage.

It’s not entirely clear at this time whether the Antares launch delay to August is due to changes in the ISS manifest scheduling or any lingering questions from the hot fire test or both.

“A final decision on the mission schedule definitely takes into account the completion of data analysis combined with the busy space station traffic schedule and NASA’s cargo requirements,” Wilson told me in a response requesting clarification.

Following a quick look immediately following the May 31 test, Orbital ATK officials initially reported that all seemed well, with the caveat that further data review is needed.

“Early indications show the upgraded propulsion system, core stage and launch complex all worked together as planned,” said Mike Pinkston, Orbital ATK General Manager and Vice President, Antares Program.

“Congratulations to the combined NASA, Orbital ATK and Virginia Space team on a successful test.”

Orbital ATK engineers will now “review test data over the next several days to confirm that all test parameters were met. ”

The test used the first stage core planned to launch the OA-7 mission from Wallops late this year.

The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

With the engine test completed, the OA-7 stage will be rolled back to the HIF processing hanger at Wallops and a new stage fully integrated with the Cygnus cargo freighter will be rolled out to the pad for the OA-5 ‘Return to Flight’ mission in August.

The mission of the OA-6 Cygnus ended on Wednesday, with a planned destructive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere at 9:29 a.m. EDT.

Also known as the SS Rick Husband, it had spent 3 months in orbit since launching in March on a ULA Atlas V.

It departed the ISS on June 14 and continued several science experiments. Most notable was to successfully create the largest fire in space via the Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I (Saffire-I).

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Re-engined’ Antares Rocket Completes Crucial Engine Test Firing

Orbital ATK conducted a full-power test of the upgraded first stage propulsion system of its Antares rocket on May 31, 2016 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A.  Credit: NASA/Orbital ATK
Orbital ATK conducted a full-power test of the upgraded first stage propulsion system of its Antares rocket on May 31, 2016 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A. Credit: NASA/Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK announced late Tuesday that the company’s Antares medium-class commercial rocket outfitted with new first stage RD-181 engines has successfully completed a test firing of the powerplants.

The 30-second long static test firing took place at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday evening, May 31, at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A.

The now revamped launch vehicle – dubbed Antares 230 – has been ‘re-engined’ and upgraded with a pair of modern and more powerful first stage engines – the Russian-built RD-181 fueled by LOX/kerosene.

The engine test was conducted using only the first stage of Antares at the MARS Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

“Early indications show the upgraded propulsion system, core stage and launch complex all worked together as planned,” said Mike Pinkston, Orbital ATK General Manager and Vice President, Antares Program.

“Congratulations to the combined NASA, Orbital ATK and Virginia Space team on a successful test.”

Orbital ATK engineers will now “review test data over the next several days to confirm that all test parameters were met”

Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

If all goes well with the intensive data review, the company could launch Antares as soon as July on its next NASA contracted mission – known as OA-5 – to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).

The test involved firing up Antares dual first stage RD-181 engines at full 100% power (thrust) for a scheduled duration of approximately 30 seconds. Hold down restraints kept the rocket firmly anchored at the pad during the test.

The RD-181 replaces the previously used AJ26 which failed moments after liftoff during the last launch on Oct. 28, 2014 resulting in a catastrophic failure of the rocket and the Cygnus cargo freighter.

The RD-181 flight engines are built by Energomash in Russia and had to be tested via the static hot fire test to ensure their readiness.

“They are a good drop in replacement for the AJ26. And they offer 13% higher thrust compared to the AJ26,” said Kurt Eberly, Orbital ATK Antares deputy program manager, in an interview with Universe Today.

First stage of Orbital ATK Antares rocket outfitted with new RD-181 engines stands erect at Launch Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming May 31 hot fire engine test. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
First stage of Orbital ATK Antares rocket outfitted with new RD-181 engines stands erect at Launch Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming May 31 hot fire engine test. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As a result of switching to the new RD-181 engines, the first stage also had to be modified to incorporate new thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines between the engines and core stage structure.

So the primary goal was to confirm the effectiveness of the new engines and all the changes in the integrated rocket stage.

“The successful stage test, along with the extensive testing of each new RD-181, gives us further confidence in the first stage propulsion and in moving forward to launch,” said Pinkston.

“We are now focused on the OA-5 mission and launching the enhanced Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station on our upgraded, higher-performing Antares rocket.”
The test used the first stage core planned to launch the OA-7 mission from Wallops late this year.

With the engine test is completed, the OA-7 stage will be rolled back to the HIF and a new stage fully integrated with the Cygnus cargo freighter will be rolled out to the pad for the OA-5 ‘Return to Flight’ mission as soon as July.

“Each of the new flight RD-181 engines has undergone hot fire acceptance testing at the manufacturer’s facility prior to being shipped to Orbital ATK. A certification test series was successfully completed in the spring of 2015 where a single engine was test fired seven times, accumulating 1,650 seconds of test time and replicating the Antares flight profile, before being disassembled for inspection,” said Orbital ATK officials.

Bird takes flight over Orbital ATK Antares set to sail skyward again in summer 2016 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Bird takes flight over Orbital ATK Antares set to sail skyward again in summer 2016 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Reborn Antares Raised at Virginia Launch Pad for Crucial May 31 Engine Test

First stage of Orbital ATK Antares rocket outfitted with new RD-181 engines stands erect at Launch Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming May 31 hot fire engine test. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
First stage of Orbital ATK Antares rocket outfitted with new RD-181 engines stands erect at Launch Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for upcoming May 31 engine test. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – The soon to be reborn Orbital ATK Antares commercial rocket sporting new first stage engines has been raised at its repaired launch pad on Virginia’s scenic eastern shore for a long awaited test firing of the powerplants. The static test firing is now slated to take place in less than 3 days on Tuesday evening, May 31.

The now revamped launch vehicle – dubbed Antares 230 – has been ‘re-engined’ and upgraded with a pair of modern and more powerful first stage engines – the Russian-built RD-181 fueled by LOX/kerosene.

The engine test will be conducted using only the first stage of Antares at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

The raised rocket with the first stage capped at the top is visible right now at the Wallops pad – as seen in my new photos taken this week.

NASA announced that the static test firing is slated for no earlier than May 31 during a test window that runs from 5 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. EDT. As a contingency, the Wallops range has been reserved for backup test dates that run through June 5 just in case issues crop up.

NASA will not be carrying a live webcast of the test. Rather they will note the completion of the test on the Wallops’ Facebook and Twitter sites.

Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The test firing will be visible from various public viewing locations in the local Wallops area. However the NASA Wallops Visitor center will not be open.

NASA will not be carrying a live webcast of the test. Rather they will note the completion of the test on the Wallops’ Facebook and Twitter sites.

Bird takes flight over Orbital ATK Antares set to sail skyward again in summer 2016 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Bird takes flight over Orbital ATK Antares set to sail skyward again in summer 2016 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The test firing will be visible from various public viewing locations in the local Wallops area. However the NASA Wallops Visitor center will not be open.

Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new RD-181 engines stands erect at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming stage test on May 31. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The test involves firing up Antares dual first stage RD-181 engines at full 100% power (thrust) for a scheduled duration of approximately 30 seconds. Hold down restraints will keep the rocket firmly anchored at the pad during the test.

The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016.  New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in May 2016. New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To prepare for the static hot fire test, Orbital ATK technicians rolled the vehicle on a dedicated multi-wheeled transporter erector launcher from the rockets processing hangar inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A about a mile away.

A successful outcome is absolutely crucial for permitting Antares to carry out its ‘Return to Flight’ launch dubbed OA-5 and set for sometime this summer.

“The hot fire will demonstrate the readiness of the rocket’s first stage and the launch pad fueling systems to support upcoming flights,” said NASA officials.

Antares launches ground to a halt following a devastating launch failure 19 months ago which destroyed the rocket and its payload of space station science and supplies for NASA in a huge fireball.

The ‘Return to Flight’ blastoff – which could come as soon as July 2016 – will be the first for the private Antares rocket since that catastrophic launch failure on Oct. 28, 2014, just seconds after liftoff from Wallops. That flight was carrying Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo freighter on the critical Orb-3 resupply mission for NASA and the astronauts living and working on the International Space Station (ISS).

The launch mishap was traced to a failure in the AJ26 first stage engine turbopump and caused Antares launches to immediately grind to a halt.

The RD-181 replaces the AJ26. The flight engines are built by Energomash in Russia.

“They are a good drop in replacement for the AJ26. And they offer 13% higher thrust compared to the AJ26,” said Kurt Eberly, Orbital ATK Antares deputy program manager, in an interview with Universe Today.

As a result of switching to the new RD-181 engines, the first stage also had to be modified to incorporate new thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines between the engines and core stage structure.

“This stage test paradigm is a design verification test,” said Eberly.

“After the 30 second test is done we will shut it down and have a pile of data to look at,” Eberly told Universe Today.

“Hopefully it will confirm all our environments and all our models and give us the confidence so we can proceed with the return to flight.”

Technicians have been processing the rocket at the pad to ready it for the test. They also conducted a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and loaded the propellants like during an actual launch campaign.

The full up engine test follows the WDR.

“After the WDR we will do the stage test,” Eberly explained.

“It is a 30 second test. We will fire up both engines and hit all 3 power levels that we plan to use in flight.”

“We will use the thrust vector controls. So we will move the nozzles and sweep them through sinusoidal sweeps at different frequencies and excite various resonances and look for any adverse interaction between fluid modes and structural modes.”

The test uses the first stage core planned to launch the OA-7 mission from Wallops late this year.

The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in May 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After the engine test is completed, the stage will be rolled back to the HIF and a new stage fully integrated with the Cygnus cargo freighter will be rolled out to the pad for the OA-5 ‘Return to Flight’ mission as soon as July.

“Orbital ATK is building, testing and flying the Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. NASA initiatives like the cargo resupply contracts are helping develop a robust U.S. commercial space transportation industry with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit,” according to NASA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS.  Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS. Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com