Orbital ATK ramps up testing ahead of 2016 Antares return to flight
The Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, has become a scene of increased activity with Orbital ATK engineers hard at work preparing their medium-class Antares booster with a much-anticipated return-to-flight.
At present, the Dulles, Virginia-based firm is on track to carry out a series of tests that will culminate in a newly redesigned “enhanced” version of the Antares booster heading to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016.
Before they do so, Orbital ATK must successfully complete several major milestones. First up is a pad hot-fire test. This should serve to validate if the NPO Energomash RD-181 rocket engines can effectively be used with pad-0A in its current configuration.
Along with an updated rocket (now designated Antares 2) and a refurbished launch pad, the Cygnus cargo module is also getting some upgrades. The new launch vehicle can carry an additional payload and the Cygnus has been outfitted as a bigger, bolder version of its former self. New circular solar panels will provide more power to the spacecraft.
The longer (by some three feet) pressurized cargo area can now hold 7,700 pounds (3,500 kilograms) of cargo. As noted by SpaceFlight Now’s Stephen Clark, this is a marked increase from the 4,400 pounds (2,000 kilograms) that prior versions of the freighter could send aloft.
The new Cygnus Enhanced cargo carrier will make its debut on Dec. 3 when it flies to the orbiting lab atop an Atlas V 401 launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-41. Orbital ATK purchased two flights of the Atlas V from United Launch Alliance (ULA) so it could continue to supply the ISS under its contract with NASA. This flight marks the fourth flight in Orbital ATK’s ten-flight $1.9 billion contract.
To complete that assembly process, Orbital set up shop at the Kennedy Space Center’s Space Station Processing Facility. There they have mated the service module to the pressurized cargo container.
Following a series of tests, the loading process has begun. It will be capped off with fuel load and final perishable item loading around mid-November.
Once those steps are completed, the completed spacecraft will be enclosed in a payload shroud and shipped to Launch Complex 41 for integration with the Atlas V.
As noted, Orbital ATK is currently planning to launch the Antares 2 with the Cygnus Enhanced spacecraft in late spring (March) or early summer of 2016.
This will be the first launch of Antares since the loss of the last vehicle on Oct. 28, 2014. On that flight, one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines suffered a catastrophic failure in its turbopump. Consequently, the entire vehicle along with the Cygnus cargo carrier were lost twelve seconds into the flight.
Since that event, Orbital ATK has moved away from the AJ26 (essentially refurbished 40-year-old Russian NK-33 engines). The RD-181 engines produce more than 100,000 pounds of additional thrust. The changeover meant that Antares required modifications to deal with this increased performance.
“These new engines are robust, flight-heritage powerhouses that provide Antares with extra performance to lift more cargo to the ISS for NASA,” said Pinkston. “It is great to be in full integration operations, performing pad testing and working towards our next launch.”
Additionally, the Antares structure was upgraded, modifications were made to the fuel tanks and modified engine control avionics were added with new propellant feedlines rounding out most of the upgrades. These modifications will be validated during the hot-fire test currently scheduled for early 2016.
During the mishap in October 2014, the launch pad and surrounding area suffered extensive damage. The repairs to the facility have only recently been completed. Ground teams are working to ensuring the site will function correctly during a launch.
In addition to these repairs, the ground teams also had to bolster the site as well as adapt the launch systems to accommodate the new Antares engines. Everything related to how the site performs should be checked out during the hot-fire test.
“We have the engines and other major subsystems installed and are preparing to begin integrated testing of the first stage,” said Mike Pinkston, Orbital ATK Vice President and Antares General Manager. “We have seen incredible dedication by our team to hit our milestones, enabling us to remain on schedule to support our mission of delivering vital supplies to the crews aboard the space station.”
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.