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

Commercial Cygnus Cargo Freighter Departs ISS After Resuming US Resupply Runs

Cygnus before we let her go as we flew above Bolivia this morning, Feb. 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Cygnus before we let her go as we flew above Bolivia this morning, Feb. 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

A commercial Cygnus cargo freighter departed the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Feb. 19) after successfully resuming America’s train of resupply runs absolutely essential to the continued productive functioning of the orbiting science outpost.

NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra commanded the release of the privately developed Orbital ATK “S.S. Deke Slayton II” Cygnus resupply ship from the snares of the stations Canadian-built robotic arm at 7:26 a.m. EST – while the space station was flying approximately 250 miles (400 km) above Bolivia.

“Honor to give #Cygnus a hand (or arm) in finalizing its mission this morning. Well done #SSDekeSlayton!” Kelly quickly posted to his social media accounts.

The Orbital ATK “S.S. Deke Slayton II” Cygnus craft had arrived at the station with several tons of supplies on Dec. 9, 2015 after blazing to orbit on Dec. 6 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the company’s fourth NASA-contracted commercial station resupply mission dubbed CRS-4.

Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named SS Deke Slayton II is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named SS Deke Slayton II is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

To prepare for today’s release, ground controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center first used the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6- meter-long) robotic arm, Canadarm2, to unberth Cygnus from its place on the stations Earth-facing port of the Unity module at about 5:38 a.m.

Cygnus came loaded with over three tons of critically needed supplies and research experiments as well as Christmas presents for the astronauts and cosmonauts living and working on the massive orbital lab complex during Expeditions 45 and 46.

Today’s activities were carried live on NASA TV. This brief NASA video shows a few highlights from Cygnus departure:

Altogether, Cygnus spent approximately 72 days attached to the station. During that time the crews unloaded all the research gear for experiments in areas such as biology, biotechnology, and physical and Earth science.

“All good things must come to an end. #Cygnus, your mission was a success! Farewell #SSDekeSlayton,” said Kelly.

Mission controllers at Orbital ATK’s Dulles, VA space operations facility soon commanded Cygnus to fire its thrusters to gradually maneuver away from the station.

The Cygnus spacecraft is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016.  Credit: NASA TV
The Cygnus spacecraft is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA TV

Before departure, the crew had loaded Cygnus back up with about 3000 pounds of trash for disposal.

On Saturday, after the spacecraft is far away from the station, controllers will fire the engines twice to pushing the vehicle into Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery reentry where it will harmlessly burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, Kelly himself will also be departing the ISS in about ten days when his historic ‘1 Year ISS Mission’ concludes on March 1, when he returns to Earth on a Russian Soyuz capsule along with his cosmonaut crewmates Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov.

December’s arrival of the Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 cargo freighter – also known as OA-4 – represented the successful restart of American’s critically needed cargo missions to the ISS following a pair of launch failures by both of NASA’s cargo providers – Orbital ATK and SpaceX – over the past year and a half. It was the first successful US cargo delivery mission in some 8 months.

Cygnus was named the ‘SS Deke Slayton II’ in memory of Deke Slayton, one of the America’s original seven Mercury astronauts. He was a member of the Apollo Soyuz Test Flight. Slayton was also a champion of America’s commercial space program.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay clean room at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module is being processed for Dec. 3, 2015 launch, Dan Tani, former astronaut and now Orbital ATK VP for Mission and Cargo Operations, center, poses with Cygnus and mural of Deke Slayton, along with Randy Gordon, Launch Support Project manager for NASA, and Kevin Leslie, ULA Mission manager. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay clean room at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module is being processed for Dec. 3, 2015 launch, Dan Tani, former astronaut and now Orbital ATK VP for Mission and Cargo Operations, center, poses with Cygnus and mural of Deke Slayton, along with Randy Gordon, Launch Support Project manager for NASA, and Kevin Leslie, ULA Mission manager. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CRS-4 counts as the first flight of Cygnus on an Atlas and the first launch to the ISS using an Atlas booster.

This is also the first flight of the enhanced, longer Cygnus, measuring 5.1 meters (20.5 feet) tall and 3.05 meters (10 feet) in diameter, sporting a payload volume of 27 cubic meters.

“The enhanced Cygnus PCM is 1.2 meters longer, so it’s about 1/3 longer,” Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK Vice President for Human Spaceflight Systems Programs, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

This Cygnus also carried its heaviest payload to date since its significantly more voluminous than the original shorter version.

“It can carry about 50% more payload,” DeMauro told me.

“This Cygnus will carry more payload than all three prior vehicles combined,” former NASA astronaut Dan Tani elaborated.

The total payload packed on board amounted to 3513 kilograms (7745 pounds), including science investigations, crew supplies, vehicle hardware, spacewalk equipment and computer resources.

Among the contents are science equipment totaling 846 kg (1867 lbs.), crew supplies of 1181 kg (2607 lbs.), and spacewalk equipment of 227 kg (500 lbs.).

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015. 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 for eight Cygnus cargo delivery flights to the ISS.

Orbital ATK has contracted a second Cygnus to fly on an Atlas on the OA-6 mission, currently slated for liftoff around March 22, 2016. Liftoff was delayed about two weeks to decontaminate an infestation of mold found in cargo already packed on the Cygnus.

NASA has also contracted with Orbital ATK to fly three additional missions through 2018. Orbital also recently was awarded six additional cargo missions by NASA as part of the CRS-2 procurement.

Orbital ATK hopes to resume Cygnus cargo launches with their own re-engined Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia this summer.

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

Ken Kremer

First British Astronaut to Visit ISS Blasts Off on Soyuz with Russian/American Crewmates

The Soyuz TMA-19M rocket is launched with the Expedition 46 crew of Yuri Malenchenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Tim Kopra of NASA, and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency), on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
The Soyuz TMA-19M rocket is launched with the Expedition 46 crew of Yuri Malenchenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Tim Kopra of NASA, and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency), on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The first British astronaut to blast off on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS) soared gloriously skyward early today, Dec 15, following the flawless launch of a Russian Soyuz capsule with his Russian/American crewmates from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The picture perfect liftoff of the Soyuz TMA-19M rocket into clear blue skies with Expedition 46 Soyuz Commander and six time space flyer Yuri Malenchenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Tim Kopra of NASA, and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency), occurred at 6:03 a.m. EST (5:03 p.m. Baikonur time, 1103 GMT) on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.

The Soyuz crew executed a series of Continue reading “First British Astronaut to Visit ISS Blasts Off on Soyuz with Russian/American Crewmates”

Cygnus Docks at Station for Christmas Delivery to Successfully Resume American Resupply Chain

@OrbitalATK’s #Cygnus spacecraft is moving toward its capture point at the International Space Station as astronaut maneuver the Canadian-built robotic arm to  reach out for dramatic vehicle grappling on Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: NASA TV
@OrbitalATK’s #Cygnus spacecraft is moving toward its capture point at the International Space Station as astronauts maneuver the Canadian-built robotic arm to reach out for dramatic vehicle grappling on Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: NASA TV
Story/photos updated

The commercial Cygnus cargo spaceship, loaded with over three tons of critically needed supplies and research experiments, successfully rendezvoused and docked with the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Dec. 9) after blazing to orbit on Sunday, Dec. 6, and thereby successfully resumed the American resupply chain to orbit – just in time for Christmas in Space!

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 resupply vessel arrived in the vicinity of the massive orbiting outpost around 530 a.m. EST today with pinpoint accuracy after precisely firing its maneuvering thrusters to home in on the complex during a two day orbital chase.

After moving close in to Continue reading “Cygnus Docks at Station for Christmas Delivery to Successfully Resume American Resupply Chain”

Spectacular Blastoff of Atlas Cygnus Ignites Restart of American Cargo Missions to ISS

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story/photos updated

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Today’s spectacular blastoff of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying an Orbital ATK Cygnus commercial resupply spacecraft ignited the restart of critically needed American cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) following a pair of launch failures over the past year.

The ULA Atlas V rocket roared off the launch pad at 4:44 p.m. EST at the opening of a 30 minute launch window from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Continue reading “Spectacular Blastoff of Atlas Cygnus Ignites Restart of American Cargo Missions to ISS”

Happy Marriage of ULA and Orbital ATK Set for Atlas V Blastoff of Cygnus Freighter to ISS on Dec. 6 – Watch NASA TV Live; Photos

Reflection view of Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 spacecraft poised for blastoff  to ISS on  ULA Atlas V on Dec. 5, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Reflection view of Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 spacecraft poised for blastoff to ISS on ULA Atlas V on Dec. 5, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The unplanned ‘Happy Marriage’ of United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Orbital ATK is set to give birth Sunday, Dec. 6, to a Cygnus cargo freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Following two scrubs and a three day due to intense and wide spread rain squalls and excessive blustery winds, the third time is hopefully the charm for the Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply ship set for blastoff atop the venerable ULA Atlas V booster.

The late afternoon liftoff is targeted for Continue reading “Happy Marriage of ULA and Orbital ATK Set for Atlas V Blastoff of Cygnus Freighter to ISS on Dec. 6 – Watch NASA TV Live; Photos”

Critical Cygnus Return to Flight Mission via Atlas V Set to Restore US Cargo Launches to ISS – Watch Live

Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft poised for blastoff  to ISS on  ULA Atlas V on Dec. 3, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 spacecraft poised for blastoff to ISS on ULA Atlas V on Dec. 3, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – In the shadow of the spanking new commercial crew access tower that our astronauts will soon ascend to restore America’s human access to space, the first ever Atlas V rocket that will launch a commercial Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) is poised for blastoff on Thursday, December 3, from the Florida Space Coast and resume the train of critically needed American cargo launches to the orbiting science laboratory.

The stakes are high for NASA and the ISS partners following a string of three cargo mission mishaps over the past year resulting from a trio of launch failures by both US and Russian rocket providers involving Orbital ATK, SpaceX and Roscosmos.

The ISS and her six person crew cannot Continue reading “Critical Cygnus Return to Flight Mission via Atlas V Set to Restore US Cargo Launches to ISS – Watch Live”