Orbital ATK’s CRS Cargo Missions resume

More than a year after the catastrophic failure of the Antares Launch vehicle which resulted in the lose of the Cygnus Cargo vehicle and its payload Orbital’s enhanced Cygnus vehicle lifted off from Cape Canaveral today with the help of an United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  The launch which was delayed three times due to inclement weather finally lifted off this afternoon when the Atlas V RD-180 came to life.

Orbital elected to purchase two Atlas V launches to allow it to resume its Commercial Resupply contract with NASA for the International Space Station while the enhancements to its Antares rocket continue.  Orbital were also able to introduce there enhanced Cygnus vehicle which can carry an additional 1,200-1,500 kg of cargo depending on launch vehicle.

 

Commercial Resupply Contracts 2

Last September NASA released a request for proposals (RFP) for a second record of contracts to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024. The proposals were due by November 14 with the awards expected in May this year. At the time of the RFP both Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) and SpaceX were flying cargo missions to ISS, however in October the third flight of Orbital’s manifest suffered a catastrophic failure resulting in the lost of the vehicle and reducing NASA to a single supplier for most of this year. This has caused NASA to have to change what is flown on SpaceX missions to compensate for the lose.

With CRS2 it is expected that both Orbital and SpaceX supplied bids however they were not the only ones with Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada indicating they have submitted bids.

There are definite advantages to increasing the field of suppliers to the ISS not least of which is the ability to better handle accidents during launch. Another advantage is beyond NASA and ISS as each new supplier brings competition to the market and longer team should help reduce costs for other customers. This will become increasingly important and we look beyond ISS (link). Depending on the supplier there will be other advantages too, if Sierra or Boeing are selected then there will be additional down mass from ISS something only SpaceX is able to offer today.

However there clearly are dis-advantages to having new suppliers too. Any new supplier would have to be certified to bring supplies to ISS, this will incur additional costs for NASA and the supplier. Also we don’t know when the other suppliers will be ready to supply the station, while the contracts are being awarded this May and are not due to start until 2018 they would still need to show progress to ensure NASA has the continue supply line they need.

There is also the concern that four of the five suppliers are launching their vehicles using Russian made RD-180/181 rocket engines, which with the political climate at the moment could prove to be a problem longer term. We know that United Launch Alliance (ULA) who will be providing launch services for three suppliers are planning to move away from the RD-180 engine, however this is not going to happen until at least 2019 and would require certification before actual launches could be performed, which ULA’s Tory Bruno has said could take until 2022-23, so almost the end of the CRS2 contract.

Check back in May to see who the contracts have been awarded to.

SLS takes another step forward

Booster Engine on the stand prior to test
Booster Engine on the stand prior to test

Earlier today the largest Solid Rocket Booster ever was fired up at Orbital ATK’s test facility in Promontory, UTAH. Based on the Solid Rocket Boosters that carried the Space Shuttle into orbit for 30 years this booster has been upgraded to support NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS).

While the Booster is based on the shuttle design a lot of changes have been made to reduce the cost and improve the processes for creation of the boosters.

Due to the increased weight of the SLS this booster consists of an extra segment over that used by the shuttle.  The five segment booster produces a total of 3.6m pounds of thrust and will burn 1.3m pounds of propellant during its two minutes of operation.  The SLS will use two boosters during launch.

what_is_qm-1
Overview of the QM-1 Test performed today

The segments used during today’s test have flown on many different shuttle missions, once retrieved from the ocean after a launch they return to Orbital’s factory where they are refurbished for another mission.  Due to the cost of recovering the boosters and refurbishing this will no longer be done meaning they will fall back to the Atlantic but remain there.

Below are screen grabs of the test

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What does the future hold for Antares

Following the failure last year of the Antares rocket during the Orb3 resupply mission to the International Space Station Orbital ATK have had to select a different rocket engine for the rocket. They have elected to use the RD-181 engine from Russia company NPO Energomash, they are expecting the first pair to be delivered later this year and will begin integrating them with the first stage replacing the older AJ26.

However the future for the rocket is also contingent on Yuzhmash from Ukraine which supplies the first stage. Due to the on-going conflict in Ukraine it is unknown at this time if Yuzhmash can continue to build the first stages and the longer the conflict goes on the harder it will be to restart and catch up with any backlog the company has as they also supply parts for eight other current or planned rockets..

We reached out to Orbital ATK regarding this situation but have not heard back to determine what options they have, we also don’t know how many of the first stage’s they already had in the US for future Antares flights.

If we heard back from Orbital ATK we will update the article with any information that is available.