Spaceflight Insider

Report: Orbital to seek new engine for Antares booster

Photo Credit: Elliot Severn / SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceFlight Now has posted a report detailing how Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation is looking into a new, as yet unnamed, rocket engine for use on the first stage of the firm’s Antares launch vehicle. The article, appearing on Oct. 19, came just slightly more than a week before the company is set to launch its Cygnus spacecraft atop an one of these rockets from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad-0A.

SpaceFlight Now’s Stephen Clark has detailed how this, as yet, unnamed rocket engine would be used on Antares by 2017. It highlights a rather dynamic situation in terms of the booster’s status.

Photo Credit: Orbital / NASA

Photo Credit: Orbital / NASA

Orbital issued a lawsuit in October of last year in order to gain access to the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine (it has since dropped that lawsuit). Currently, United Launch Alliance (ULA ) uses the RD-180 on its Atlas V family of boosters. With ULA considering moving away from NPO Energomash’s RD-180 – it is unclear if this engine could be considered for future use on Antares.

If so, Antares could be moving from one Russian-made rocket engine to another, as the launch vehicle currently employs the AJ-26 engine in its first stage.

The Aj-26, formerly known as the NK-33, was developed and produced by the Kuznetsov Design Bureau back in the late 1960s / early 1970s. Forty-three of these engines were imported from Russia by Aerojet Rocketdyne in the 1990s – for use on U.S. launch vehicles. Orbital purchased 20 of those engines. The AJ-26 is a high-pressure, stage combustion engine that uses super-cold liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene as propellant that is capable of producing 350,000 lbs of thrust at sea level.

The age of the AJ-26 engines was brought to the fore when an AJ-26 failed during a test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi back on May 22 of this year.

The Antares rocket that is slated to launch on Oct. 27, 2014 at Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Photo Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA

The Antares rocket that is slated to launch on Oct. 27, 2014 at Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Photo Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA

SpaceFlight Now was informed by Orbital’s CEO, David Thompson, that the company was waiting to make an official announcement after bids for acquiring the engines had been completed. Orbital has a lot riding on the Antares launch system – making the reliability of the booster’s first stage – a critical concern.

Under the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract that Orbital has with NASA, the company is required with conducting eight resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS ) by 2016.

The CRS contract is set to be renewed, and Orbital is certain to bid on this lucrative follow-on. The second CRS contract is currently scheduled to run from 2018 through 2024.

Proposals for the next phase of the contract is open to other competitors and are due by the middle of November. This could mean that another entity besides the two current company’s – could be tapped to provide services to the station.

NASA is working with both SpaceX and Orbital to extend the first phase of the CRS contract through 2017. The same year as when Orbital is planning to have Antares’ new engine operational by.

Both of the companies currently participating on the CRS contract employ a two-step method of sending cargo and supplies to the space station. Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) launches its Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Orbital uses its Cygnus spacecraft, which lifts off atop the Antares rocket from Pad-0A at Wallops.

Photo Credit: Elliot Severn / SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Elliot Severn / SpaceFlight Insider

Orbital is poised to launch the fifth of the company’s Antares rockets on Oct. 27, 2014. The flight will mark the third operational mission carried out under the CRS contract and the fourth mission overall that the Cygnus spacecraft has undertaken.

“…We are very pleased to be a reliable partner with NASA to meet their need for reliable, regularly scheduled cargo resupply for the ISS,” Thompson said after one of the company’s prior missions to the ISS.

 This article was edited on Oct. 26, 2014 at 19:50 p.m. EDT to reflect the current status of Orbital’s lawsuit

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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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

So according to this article, Orbital is suing to gain access to the RD-180. Last year Orbital was suing Virginia space and now I read Orbital is suing another contractor over hardware. They sure seem to be sue happy, that’s not very good public relations.

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