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New pad, new engines – NewSpace: 0A set to support flights of Enhanced Antares

Orbital ATK Enhanced Antares rocket with RD-181 engines at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport MARS Pad 0A photo credit Jared Haworth SpaceFlight Insider

The new “enhanced” Antares at the Horizontal Integration Facility at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, Va. — The launch site for Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket is primed and ready to see the medium-range booster return to flight sometime early next year (2016). That was the message relayed by representatives of the company during a roughly two-hour long tour of both Wallops Flight Facility’s Pad 0A and the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF). 

According to Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK, the RD-181 engines that graced the “enhanced” Antares that currently rests on its side inside the HIF are brand new.

The new engines are significantly different than the engines that earlier versions of the rocket had used – the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines, also known as the NK-33. Those engines were some 40 years old when they were integrated into the five prior launches of the Antares.

Orbital ATK Enhanced Antares rocket with RD-181 engines at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport MARS Pad 0A photo credit Jared Haworth SpaceFlight Insider

Unlike the AJ26 engines used on earlier versions of Antares, the RD-181 engines on the enhanced version of Antares are brand new. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

Although the age of the engines were not the exact cause of the accident, their state became an issue of concern after the failure if the Orb-3 mission, which lasted about 12 seconds. A turbopump failure in one of the two AJ26 engines in the booster’s first stage caused the rocket as well as the Cygnus spacecraft it carried and the 5,000 lbs (2,300 kg) of cargo on board to be lost.

The accident also caused extensive damage to the Pad 0A launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). That damage is now repaired, and the pad could support a launch today if one were scheduled.

The RD-181 engines in this new Antares are brand new engines. They were fully tested and certified by NPO Energomash in Russia, including being static test-fired there before being shipped over to the U.S.

Orbital ATK Enhanced Antares rocket with RD-181 engines at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport MARS Pad 0A photo credit Jared Haworth SpaceFlight Insider

Pad 0A has been repaired and refurbished and ready to support flights of the new version of Antares. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

For their part, Aerojet Rocketdyne essentially refunded the $50 million Orbital ATK had paid for the remaining AJ26 engines and the California-based firm reclaimed those engines. It is unclear what will happen with the 10 engines now.

A new version of the Payload Fairing (PLF) is being developed, one which have an access hatch for late cargo loads (rather than having to de-encapsulate the payload after an extended scrub to unload late-load cargo).

Orbital ATK is planning a static test-fire in the spring of 2016. During this test, engineers will use the core stage and the RD-181s that have been selected to carry out the OA-7 mission. The static test fire should last some 30 seconds and see the booster roar at full power (some 108 percent of maximum thrust). After the static test fire has been completed, the core will then be inspected before being readied for the planned October launch.

Orbital ATK Enhanced Antares rocket with RD-181 engines at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport MARS Pad 0A photo credit Jared Haworth SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

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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.

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