Orbital’s Cygnus – on a SpaceX Falcon 9?
SpaceFlight Insider has received word that the potential prime “contender” to ferry Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus spacecraft to orbit, and thus allow Orbital to complete its requirements under the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS ) contract – is none other than fellow CRS participant – SpaceX. If this turns out to be true, it would mean that both current CRS firms – would be flying on the same rocket.
To help better determine the veracity of these claims, SpaceFlight Insider reached out to both Orbital and SpaceX. While the latter declined comment, the former stated that: When we’ve made a final selection of a launch vehicle and have finalized other details of the go-forward plan, we will announce our decisions publicly.
While flying on a competitor’s launch vehicle might be viewed as awkward, the decision could boil down to one simple determining factor – cost. It has been estimated that a flight on a F9 would set a customer back $62 million.
By comparison, United Launch Alliance’s (ULA ) Atlas V 401 launch vehicle, a booster with similar capabilities to the F9, costs an estimated $100 million per mission. Moreover, SpaceX has a proven track record with the Falcon 9.
To date, the company has already flown to the International Space Station five times under the CRS agreement. The firm was awarded $1.6 billion to carry out twelve resupply runs (more accurately SpaceX has to deliver 20,000 kg to the ISS) to the orbiting laboratory by 2016. A date that is likely a cause for concern for Orbital as, under CRS, they are also required to deliver a similar weight – by the same deadline. Recent events however have cast doubt on Orbital’s ability to do this.
On Oct. 28, 2014, the booster that Orbital had developed for use on CRS – failed. Resulting in a massive explosion which enveloped NASA Wallops Flight Facility’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad-0A. The Antares launch vehicle, the Cygnus spacecraft perched atop it and about 5,000 lbs worth of cargo bound for the ISS – were all lost.
After the accident, Orbital opened an investigation into the root cause of the disaster. To date it appears that a turbopump on one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 rocket engines failed. Orbital has announced that it is planning to use another engine on Antares and that it will likely not use any more of the 40-year-old AJ-26 engines on the rocket’s next flight – which Orbital hopes to conduct in 2016.
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.