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’”

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