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

Upgraded Antares Rolls Out to Virginia Launch Pad, High Stakes Engine Test Looms

Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new engines is rolled from NASA Wallops Flight Facility’s Horizontal Integration Facility to Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on May 12, 2016, in preparation for the upcoming stage test in the next few weeks.   Credit: NASA's Wallops Flight Facility/Allison Stancil
Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new engines is rolled from NASA Wallops Flight Facility’s Horizontal Integration Facility to Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on May 12, 2016, in preparation for the upcoming stage test in the next few weeks. Credit: NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility/Allison Stancil

An upgraded version of Orbital ATK’s commercially developed Antares rocket has at last rolled out to its launch pad on the Virginia shore – thus paving the path for a high stakes first stage engine test looming “in the next few weeks,” according to the aerospace firm.

“This stage test paradigm is a design verification test, said Kurt Eberly, Orbital ATK Antares deputy program manager, in an interview with Universe Today.

The rocket will be erected at the pad during the full power hot fire test which is scheduled to last approximately 30 seconds. Hold down restraints will keep the rocket firmly anchored at the pad.

“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.”

Indeed the significance of the hot fire engine test cannot be overstated because the entire future of Antares as a viable launch vehicle and resuming delivery of NASA cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) depends on a successful outcome of the crucial test firing – following a devastating launch failure 19 months ago.

Orbital ATK hopes to restart resupply missions to the crews living aboard the space station as soon as July – less than two months from today.

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

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

To prepare for the upcoming stage test, workers carefully assembled and thoroughly tested an Antares first stage equipped with the new RD-181 engines.

On May 12, 2016, they moved the vehicle on a dedicated multi-wheeled transporter from the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A about a mile away.

Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new engines is rolled from NASA Wallops Flight Facility’s Horizontal Integration Facility to Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on May 12, 2016, in preparation for the upcoming stage test in the next few weeks.   Credit: Orbital ATK
Orbital ATK’s Antares first stage with the new engines is rolled from NASA Wallops Flight Facility’s Horizontal Integration Facility to Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A on May 12, 2016, in preparation for the upcoming stage test in the next few weeks. Credit: Orbital ATK

The team has about 3 weeks of check out work to complete before the live firing, including a wet dress rehearsal (WDR).

“The team will continue to work meticulously as they begin final integration and check outs on the pad and several readiness reviews prior to the test. The window for the stage test will be over multiple days to ensure technical and weather conditions are acceptable,” noted Orbital ATK in a statement.

The ‘Return to Flight’ blastoff – currently planned for as soon as July 2016 – will be the first for the private Antares rocket since a 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 to the space station.

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.

Top Orbital ATK management soon decided to ditch the AJ26s, which were 40 year old refurbished engines, originally built during the Soviet era and originally known as the NK-33.

They sought a replacement and eventually decided to upgrade Antares by powering it with a pair of new Russian-made RD-181 main stage engines and modifying the first stage core structure to accommodate the new engines.

The RD-181 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,” Eberly noted.

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.

Independent review teams have also been brought in to ensure that no stone is left unturned and everything is being done to achieve success.

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

Now it’s time for the real deal. After all the hard work Antares is now at the pad.

“We place it on the pad about 3 weeks prior to the engine test,” Eberly told me. “Then we and do a series of integrated checks, and electrical checks and pressure checks on the feed lines.”

“Then we will do a wet dress rehearsal where we will load the tanks with propellants. We will load the pressure bottles, pressurize the tanks and then count down just like we would for the real stage test. And right before we ignite the engines we will call a halt to the sequencer.”

“Then we will detank and pick through all that data and do a readiness review.”

If the WDR goes well, the full up engine test will follow.

“Then 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.”

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Launch Complex 0-A at the edge of Virginia’s shore at NASA Wallops are crucial to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). .   Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket first stage stands erect at Launch Complex 0-A at the edge of Virginia’s shore at NASA Wallops, in this file photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The vehicle and pad will be outfitted with lots of special instrumentation to gather as much test data as possible.

“We will have a lot of accelerometers and extra instrumentation and extra microphones on the test article and around the pad.

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

“That will hopefully confirm all our environments and all our models and give us the confidence so we can proceed with the return to flight on the OA-5 mission.”

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

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

In the past 6 months, Orbital ATK has successfully resumed launches of their Cygnus cargo freighters to the ISS – as an interim measure until Antares is returned to flight status

They utilized the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to deliver two Cygnus resupply vessels to the ISS on the OA-4 flight in Dec. 2015 and OA-6 flight in March 2016.

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 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

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

Ken Kremer

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. The 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. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK Integration of Upgraded Antares Kicks Into High Gear For 2016 ‘Return to Flight’

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – Assembly and testing of a significantly upgraded version of Orbital ATK’s commercially developed Antares rocket has kicked into high gear and is on target for rebirth – as the clock ticks down towards its ‘Return to Flight’ by approximately mid-2016 from a launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia, company managers told Universe Today during a recent up close media visit to see the actual flight hardware.

Mission integration operations are in full swing right now as technicians were actively processing Antares hardware in order to resume launches of critical cargo missions to crews living aboard the space station, during my visit to Orbital ATK’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in mid-December. Continue reading “Orbital ATK Integration of Upgraded Antares Kicks Into High Gear For 2016 ‘Return to Flight’”

One Year after Antares Failure, Orbital ATK Revamps Rocket for 2016 ‘Return to Flight’

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

One year after the catastrophic launch failure of Orbital ATK’s private Antares rocket seconds after liftoff with the Cygnus cargo freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS), the firm is well on the way towards revamping the booster with modern new engines and implementing a ‘Return or Flight’ by approximately mid-2016, company officials told Universe Today. Antares is on the comeback trail.

Some 15 seconds after blastoff of the firms Antares/Cygnus rocket on October 28, 2014 on the Orb-3 resupply mission for NASA to the space station, the flight rapidly devolved into total disaster when one of the rockets first stage AJ26 engines suddenly blew up without warning after liftoff from NASA Wallops Island facility along the Eastern shore of Virginia at 6:22 p.m. ET.

After thoroughly investigating and evaluating the causes of the Orb-3 disaster, the top management of Continue reading “One Year after Antares Failure, Orbital ATK Revamps Rocket for 2016 ‘Return to Flight’”

Cygnus Cargo Craft Comes Together for Space Station ‘Return to Flight’ Blastoff in December

Cygnus service module built by Orbital ATK in their Dulles, Virginia cleanroom is shown here with unfurled Ultraflex solar panels that will fly for the first time with mated pressurized module on the OA-4 ISS resupply mission on ULA Atlas V rocket on Dec. 3, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.    Credit: Orbital ATK
Cygnus service module built by Orbital ATK in their Dulles, Virginia cleanroom is shown here with unfurled UltraFlex solar panels that will fly for the first time with mated pressurized module on the OA-4 ISS resupply mission on ULA Atlas V rocket on Dec. 3, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Orbital ATK
See OA-4 mission patch and hardware photos below

The biggest and heaviest Cygnus commercial cargo craft ever built by Orbital ATK is coming together at the Kennedy Space Center as the launch pace picks up steam for its critical ‘Return to Flight’ resupply mission to the space station for NASA. Cygnus is on target for an early December blastoff from Florida and the Orbital ATK team is “anxious to get flying again.”

“We are very excited about the upcoming [OA-4] cargo mission and returning to flight,” said Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK Vice President for Human Spaceflight Systems Programs, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Continue reading “Cygnus Cargo Craft Comes Together for Space Station ‘Return to Flight’ Blastoff in December”

Orbital ATK on the Rebound With Antares Return to Flight in 2016

Orbital ATK is on the rebound with return to flight of their Antares rocket slated in early 2016 following the catastrophic launch failure that doomed the last Antares in October 2014 on a resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS).

Engineers are making “excellent progress” assembling a modified version of Antares that is currently on track to blast off as soon as March 2016 with the company’s Cygnus resupply ship and resume critical deliveries of research experiments and life sustaining provisions to the multinational crews serving aboard the orbiting outpost.

“We are on track for the next Antares launch in early 2016,” said David Thompson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Orbital ATK in a progress update.

Resuming Antares launches is a key part of the company’s multipronged effort to fulfil their delivery commitments to NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

“The focus all along has been to do everything we can to fulfill our commitments to delivering cargo to the space station for NASA,” Thompson stated.

“After the Antares launch failure last October … our team has been sharply focused on fulfilling that commitment.”

Pre-launch seaside panorama of Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket at the NASA's Wallops Flight Facility launch pad on Oct 26 - 2 days before the ??Orb-3? launch failure on Oct 28, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Pre-launch seaside panorama of Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket at the NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility launch pad on Oct 26 – 2 days before the Orb-3 launch failure on Oct 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The key milestone was to successfully re-engine Antares with a new type of first stage engine that completely eliminates use of the original AJ26 engines that were refurbished 40 year leftovers – the NK-33 from Russia’s abandoned manned moon landing program.

After the launch failure, Orbital managers decided to ditch the trouble plagued AJ-26 and “re-engineered” the vehicle with the new RD-181 Russian-built engines that were derived from the RD-191.

Soviet era NK-33 engines refurbished as the AJ26 exactly like pictured here probably caused Antares’ rocket failure on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Soviet era NK-33 engines refurbished as the AJ26 exactly like pictured here probably caused Antares’ rocket failure on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK holds a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract from NASA worth $1.9 Billion to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware spread out over eight Cygnus cargo delivery flights to the ISS.

NASA has recently supplemented the CRS contract with three additional Cygnus resupply deliveries in 2017 and 2018.

However, the Cygnus missions were put on hold when the third operational Antares/Cygnus flight was destroyed in a raging inferno about 15 seconds after liftoff on the Orb-3 mission from launch pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

Until Antares flights can safely resume, Orbital ATK has contracted with rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch a Cygnus cargo freighter atop an Atlas V rocket for the first time, in early December – as I reported here.

The Antares rocket is being upgraded with the new RD-181 main engines powering the modified first stage core structure that replace the troublesome AJ26 engines whose failure caused the Antares Orb-3 launch explosion on Oct. 28, 2014.

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
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

“We are making excellent progress in resuming our cargo delivery service to the International Space Station for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract,” said company officials.

Orbital ATK engineering teams have been working diligently on “integrating and testing the new RD-181 main engines.”

After engineers finished acceptance testing and certification of the RD-181, the first dual engine set was shipped to Orbital’s Wallops Island integration facility. They arrived in mid-July. A second set is due to arrive in the fall.

“The RD-181 engine provides extra thrust and higher specific impulse, significantly increasing the payload capacity of the Antares rocket. This state-of-the-art propulsion system is a direct adaptation of the RD-191 engine, which completed an extensive qualification and certification program in 2013, accumulating more than 37,000 seconds of total run time,” said Scott Lehr, President of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group, in a statement.

Engineers and technicians have now “integrated the two RD-181 engines with a newly designed and built thrust frame adapter and modified first stage airframe.”

Then they will add new propellant feed lines and first stage avionics systems.

Then comes the moment of truth. A “hot fire” test on the launch pad will be conducted by either the end of 2015 or early 2016 “to verify the vehicle’s operational performance and compatibility of the MARS launch complex.”

“Significant progress has been made in the manufacture and test of the modified hardware components, avionics and software needed to support the new engines,” said Mike Pinkston, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Antares Program.

“We are solidly on track to resume flying Antares in 2016.”

Antares rocket raised at NASA Wallops launch pad 0A bound for the ISS on Sept 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket raised at NASA Wallops launch pad 0A bound for the ISS on Sept 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Simultaneously, teams have been working hard to repair the Wallops launch pad which was damaged when the doomed Antares plummeted back to Earth and exploded in a hellish inferno witnessed by thousands of spectators and media including myself.

Repairs are expected to be completed by early 2016 to support a launch tentatively planned for as soon as March 2016.

SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial cargo company under contract to ship supplies to the ISS also suffered a launch failure of with their Falcon 9/Dragon cargo delivery rocket on June 28, 2015.

NASA is working with both forms to restart the critical ISS resupply train as soon as can safely be accomplished.

Be sure to read Ken’s earlier eyewitness reports about last October’s Antares failure at NASA Wallops and ongoing reporting about Orbital ATK’s recovery efforts – all here at Universe Today.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about Orbital ATK, SpaceX, Boeing, ULA, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Aug 29-31: “MUOS-4 launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Cygnus Freighter Arrives at Kennedy as Orbital ATK Ramps Up Station Resupply Recovery Efforts via Atlas V

A commercial Cygnus cargo freighter has just arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida to begin intensive processing for a critical mission to deliver some four tons of science experiments and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) atop an Atlas V rocket in early December – as manufacturer Orbital ATK takes a big step in ramping up activities to fulfill its station resupply commitments and recover from the catastrophic launch failure of the firms Antares rocket last October.

Taking advantage of the built in flexibility to launch Cygnus on a variety of rockets, Orbital ATK quickly contracted rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA) to propel the cargo ship as soon as practical on the venerable Atlas V – as Orbital simultaneously endeavors to reengineer the Antares and bring that vehicle back to full flight status in 2016.

Since the fastest and most robust path back to on orbital cargo delivery runs through Florida via an Atlas V, Orbital ATK teamed up with ULA to launch a minimum of one Cygnus with an option for more.

Cygnus is comprised of a pressurized cargo module (PCM) manufactured by Thales Alenia Space’s production facility in Turin, Italy and a service module (SM) manufactured at Orbital ATK’s Dulles, Virginia satellite manufacturing facility.

The PCM arrived on Monday, Aug. 11 and is now being processed for the flight dubbed OA-4 at KSC inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF). After the SM arrives in October it will be mated to the PCM inside the SSPF.

The OA-4 Service Module (SM) undergoing deployment testing of one of its two UltraflexTM solar arrays at orbital ATK’s Dulles, Virginia satellite manufacturing facility. Orbital ATK’s Space Components Division supplies the Ultraflex arrays.  Credit: Orbital ATK
The OA-4 Service Module (SM) undergoing deployment testing of one of its two UltraflexTM solar arrays at orbital ATK’s Dulles, Virginia satellite manufacturing facility. Orbital ATK’s Space Components Division supplies the Ultraflex arrays. Credit: Orbital ATK

The first Cygnus cargo mission should liftoff sometime late in the fourth quarter of 2015, perhaps as soon as Dec. 3, aboard an Atlas V 401 vehicle from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Since ULA’s Atlas V manifest was already fully booked, ULA managers told me that they worked diligently to find a way to manufacture and insert an additional Atlas V into the tight launch sequence flow at the Cape.

And since the station and its six person crews can’t survive and conduct their scientific research work without a steady train of cargo delivery missions from the station’s partner nations, Orbital ATK is “devoting maximum efforts” to get their Antares/Cygnus ISS resupply architecture back on track as fast as possible.

Orbital ATK holds a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract from NASA worth $1.9 Billion to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for eight Cygnus cargo delivery flights to the ISS.

However, the Cygnus missions were put on hold when the third operational Antares/Cygnus flight was destroyed in a raging inferno about 15 seconds after liftoff on the Orb-3 mission from launch pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

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

“We committed to NASA that we would resume CRS cargo delivery missions as soon as possible under a comprehensive ‘go-forward’ plan after the Antares launch failure last October,” said David W. Thompson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Orbital ATK.

“Since that time our team has been sharply focused on fulfilling that commitment. With a Cygnus mission slated for later this year and at least three missions to the Space Station planned in 2016, we are on track to meet our CRS cargo requirements for NASA.”

Orbital says they will deliver the full quantity of cargo specified in the CRS contract with NASA.

“Our team and our partners are devoting maximum efforts to ensuring the success of NASA’s ISS commercial cargo program.”

“We are committed to meeting all CRS mission requirements, and we are prepared to continue to supply the Space Station.”

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12   Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo.  Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9, 2014 and docked on Jan. 12 Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo. Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

For the OA-4 cargo mission, Cygnus will be loaded with its heaviest cargo to date on nearly four tons.

The weightier cargo is possible because a longer version of Cygnus will be employed.

This mission will fly with the extended Cygnus Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM) which will carry approximately 3,500 kg or 7,700 pounds of supplies to station.

“This is a very exciting time for the Cygnus team at Orbital ATK,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president of Human Space Systems and program director of the Commercial Resupply Services program at Orbital ATK.

“Not only are we launching from Kennedy on an Atlas V for the first time, but this will also be the first flight of the Enhanced Cygnus, which includes a larger cargo module and a more mass-efficient service module.”

Use of the enhanced Cygnus in combination with the added thrust ULA V is a game changer enabling the Cygnus to carry its maximum possible cargo load for NASA.

“During our first three missions, we delivered 3,629 kilograms to the space station, about the weight of two F-150 pickup trucks,” said Frank DeMauro.

The OA-4 Cygnus alone will deliver some 3,500 kilograms.

Once in orbit, Cygnus fires its onboard thrusters to precisely guide itself close to the space station so that the astronauts can grapple it with the robotic arm and berth it to a port on the station.

Be sure to read Ken’s earlier eyewitness reports about last October’s Antares failure at NASA Wallops and ongoing reporting about Orbital ATK’s recovery efforts – all here at Universe Today.

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

Ken Kremer

Soviet era NK-33 engines refurbished as the AJ26 exactly like pictured here probably caused Antares’ rocket failure on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Soviet era NK-33 engines refurbished as the AJ26 exactly like pictured here probably caused Antares’ rocket failure on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK Aims for March 2016 Antares Rocket Launch Restart with New Engines

The newly merged company Orbital ATK is aiming to restart launches of their “upgraded Antares” rocket in March 2016 using completely new engines, following the catastrophic explosion on Oct. 28, 2014 that destroyed the rocket seconds after blastoff from a Virginia launch pad. Antares was carrying a Cygnus module loaded with supplies on a critical space station resupply mission for NASA.

The March 2016 launch date of Antares from the Wallops Island base along Virginia’s eastern shore was announced by David Thompson, Orbital ATK, President and CEO, during a recent conference call with investors and analysts regarding the formal merger of Orbital Sciences and ATK.

“The target date for that [Antares launch] is the 1st of March next year,” said Thompson.

Cygnus will be fully loaded with new supplies for the station crew.

“The first launch … will have a full cargo load on board.”

The Orbital Sciences Corp. commercial Antares rocket was destroyed in a raging inferno about 15 seconds after liftoff on Oct. 28 when one of the Soviet-era built first stage engines apparently exploded and cascaded into a spectacular aerial fireball just above the launch pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the doomed Orb-3 mission carrying the Cygnus resupply module to the International Space Station (ISS).

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’s privately developed Cygnus pressurized cargo freighter was loaded with nearly 5000 pounds (2200 kg) of science experiments, research instruments, crew provisions, spare parts, spacewalk and computer equipment and gear on the Orb-3 mission. The module and all its contents were destroyed.

Orbital established an independent accident investigation review board immediately following the launch failure.

“We are about four months now into the recovery from the failure,’ said Thompson.

A turbopump failure in one of the rockets Soviet-era first stage engines has been identified as the most likely cause of the Antares destruction, according to official statements from David Thompson.

The AJ26 engines were originally manufactured some 40 years ago in the then Soviet Union as the NK-33. They were refurbished and “Americanized” by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares doomed descent to incendiary destruction after first stage propulsion system of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“The next Cygnus will be launched on the upgraded Antares from Wallops Island. The target date for that is the 1st of March next year.”

After the launch failure Orbital, decided to ditch the trouble plagued AJ-26 and “re-engineered” the vehicle with new engines.

The Antares first stage had been powered by a pair of the aging AJ26 engines. These will now be replaced by a pair of newly manufactured Russian RD-181 engines, assembled and purchased from NPO Energomash.

“The first launch of the re-engineered vehicle in March of next year … will have a full cargo load on board.”

Thompson said the March 2016 launch target date will be preceded by a hot fire test of the first stage engines, which is currently planned to take place in January 2015. They will not conduct a demonstration launch and have opted for a full up space station resupply flight.

“We’re going to go with the cargo load on the first launch. What we are going to do in advance of that, in January of next year, is we’re going to take the first stage of Antares out to the launch pad with the new engines and do a flight readiness firing, somewhat similar to what we did back in early 2013, in advance of the first Antares flight,” said Thompson.

“But other than that, unless something came up there that was surprising, we should then be able to proceed pretty expeditiously to the first launch of the re-engineered vehicle in March of next year, and that will have a full cargo load on board.”

Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Thompson also reiterated that Orbital will fully meet its resupply services contarct with NASA and make up for the lost cargo.

The Orbital-3, or Orb-3, mission that ended in disaster on Oct 28, was to be the third of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS through 2016 under the NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract award valued at $1.9 Billion. Under the CRS program Orbital is to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts, and hardware for the eight ISS flights.

“The focus all along has been to do everything we can to fulfill our commitments to delivering cargo to the space station for NASA, and to minimize any disruption that we can to the delivery schedules.”

Towards that end Orbital ATK has contracted with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch at least one and up to two Cygnus cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program.

The first Cygnus mission would liftoff sometime late in the fourth quarter of 2015 aboard an Atlas V 401 vehicle from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

I watched the unfolding disaster first hand from the media viewing site about 1.8 miles away and filed eyewitness reports at the time. Several of my launch pad remote cameras were set up at the pad. They were impounded and the images were used by investigators during the initial investigation. They were returned to me about a month later and are featured here and in my earlier Antares reports.

Watch here for Ken’s ongoing reporting about Antares and NASA Wallops.

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

Ken Kremer

Cygnus pressurized cargo module - side view - during prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com