With little damage to tracking station, OA-5 set to launch Sunday
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK and NASA are preparing to launch the first of their upgraded Antares-230 rockets from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The mission will mark the return-to-flight of Antares, but it has to have a critical asset survive Mother Nature first before it can take off on Sunday, Oct. 16.
If everything occurs as it is currently planned, Antares will liftoff from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia at 8:03 p.m. EDT (00:03 GMT on Oct. 17). This looked a little “iffy” as turbulent weather out in the Atlantic threatened to down one of the key installations needed for the mission to get underway.
A radar tracking station located in Bermuda was staring down the barrel of Nicole, a Category 4 storm with sustained wind speeds of 130 mph (209 km/h). NASA and Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK – the producer of the Antares line of privately-produced launch vehicles – held their collective breaths and waited to see what damage the storm would inflict.
When all was said and done, it turned out that the rough weather inflicted less harm than was anticipated and NASA gave a “go” to move forward with the mission.
“There was very little damage at the Bermuda site and they’re continuing to bring up and test the systems today. They expect to be ready for final testing tomorrow as planned,” Keith Koehler, a public affairs officer with NASA told SpaceFlight Insider.
This is the first scheduled flight of an Antares rocket at night and the flight is expected to be visible up and down the Eastern Coast. According to a map provided by Orbital ATK, the launch could be seen as far north as the lower parts of New Hampshire and Vermont, and as far south as South Carolina. The upgraded Antares rocket could become visible around three minutes after it has left Virginia Space’s MARS facility.
The Antares was rolled out to Pad 0A on Thursday, Oct. 13. It was raised on Friday morning, Oct. 14, along with the S.S. Alan Poindexter Cygnus spacecraft, into the vertical position and the integration of the launch vehicle and pad began.
A Launch Readiness Review (LRR) is slated to occur on Saturday, Oct. 15, from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. EDT (19:00–21:00 GMT). The LRR is where the final decision to go ahead with the launch will be given.
The S.S. Alan Poindexter has some 5,100 lbs (2,313 kg) of science/research, crew supplies, and vehicle hardware on board. The spacecraft, a highly modified and upgraded version of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module that was used to carry similar cargo to the International Space Station back during the Space Shuttle era, is being eyed for other missions.
“As we focus on our primary mission right now, which is delivering cargo to the ISS, we’re also looking at the future for Cygnus, as it is currently designed, it can be a valuable piece of NASA’s future space exploration efforts,” Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK’s Vice President of Advanced Programs / Space Systems told SpaceFlight Insider during a recent interview. “We’re looking at using Cygnus as a test bed for technologies for NASA’s exploration program […] we might be able to use Cygnus as a habitation module, a place where the crew could conduct experiments beyond low-Earth orbit as well as a logistics module to bring food, experiments, and food out to the crew beyond low-Earth orbit.”
Sunday’s launch will be the sixth mission that Orbital ATK has launched under the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract the company has with NASA. It will also mark the return-to-flight of the Antares rocket which encountered an in-flight anomaly in October 2014.
The accident was likely caused by a turbopump in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines. Orbital ATK had already been moving away from Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engines at the time of the accident.
While Aerojet Rocketdyne attempted to blame flight debris for the disaster, NASA’s Independent Review Team (IRT) stated that a preponderance of evidence suggested the 40-year-old AJ26 engine was likely to blame. Supporting this view is the fact that another AJ26 encountered a failure at the E-1 test stand at NASA’s engine testing facility at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
A report appearing on Reuters detailed how Aerojet Rocketdyne paid $50 million to Orbital ATK and took title to 10 AJ26 engines that had been tasked for upcoming Antares flights. In so doing, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s involvement with the Antares Program came to an end. The Reuters article was published on Sept. 24, 2014 – more than two weeks before the IRT’s findings were released.
For their part, Orbital ATK is working toward the future of Antares and have “re-engined” the launch vehicle with new RD-181 engines which provides approximately 25 percent increase in the amount of payload the rocket is able to send to orbit over the AJ26.
“The RD-181 is as close to a ‘drop-in’ replacement [engine] that we could find,” Mike Pinkston, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Antares program told SpaceFlight Insider. “These higher-performing engines give us a little more capability so, we can do larger payload and larger cargo loads.”
When asked about what modifications that were required to have the RD-181 be used on Antares, Pinkston noted that new propellant feed lines, pneumatic interfaces, and avionics were some of Antares’ components requiring upgrades.
For Sunday’s launch attempt, weather conditions in and around Wallops are exceptional with a 95 percent chance of favorable conditions for launch currently being predicted.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.