Orbital ATK looks to Antares to handle cargo resupply missions

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Update 10:20 a.m. Eastern Nov. 11 after post-scrub briefing.

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — After launching three of its last four Cygnus missions from Florida, Orbital ATK is planning to begin a string of cargo launches to the International Space Station on its Antares rocket with one now scheduled for Nov. 12.

An Antares was scheduled to lift off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport here at 7:37 a.m. Eastern Nov. 11 at the start of a five-minute launch window, carrying a Cygnus spacecraft on a mission to the ISS designated OA-8. However, controllers aborted the launch in the final minutes of the countdown after an aircraft entered a restricted zone. The launch has been rescheduled for 7:14 a.m. Eastern Nov. 12, with a 90 percent chance of acceptable weather.

The plane in question was a private aircraft flying about 10 kilometers offshore at an altitude of 150 meters, Bill Wrobel, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said in a briefing after the launch scrub. Controllers were unable to contact the plane, necessitating the scrub. There were no other issues with the launch vehicle at the time of the scrub.

The launch will be the first for the Antares in more than a year, after the launch of the OA-5 Cygnus mission to the station in October 2016. “We’re excited to get Cygnus launched again on our Antares rocket,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Advanced Programs Division, during a pre-launch press conference at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility Nov. 10.

Originally, Orbital ATK and its predecessor, Orbital Sciences, planned to launch all the Cygnus missions on the Antares rocket. Those plans changed, those, when an Antares rocket failed in an October 2014 launch of the Cygnus Orb-3 mission because of a problem with the rocket’s first stage engine.

Orbital then booked an Atlas 5 launch with United Launch Alliance for a Cygnus spacecraft that flew in December 2015, followed by another in March 2016. The Antares return to flight on the OA-5 mission was a success, but weeks later Orbital ATK announced it purchased a third Atlas 5 launch, which took place in April 2017, saying that was necessary to meet a NASA need for additional cargo to the station.

DeMauro said there are no plans to return to the Atlas 5 for the foreseeable future, as the company completes its original Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract and starts a follow-on award called CRS-2. “Our baseline plan is to continue to fly Cygnus on Antares,” he said. “We are ready to respond to our customer’s needs, if they should require something different, but for all of the rest of CRS-1 and so far for the CRS-2 missions we’re planning to do them on Antares.”

After this launch, Orbital ATK has three missions remaining on its CRS contract, OA-9, 10 and 11. No firm launch dates have been set, but DeMauro said OA-9 could launch as soon as the first quarter of 2018. OA-10 would then likely follow in the fall of 2018 and OA-11 in early 2019. DeMauro said later that NASA has ordered two Cygnus missions so far under its CRS-2 contract, OA-12 and 13.

The launch will be the second of the upgraded version of the Antares, known as Antares 230, which uses Russian-built RD-181 engines in the first stage in place of the AJ26 engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne — refurbished Soviet-era NK-33 engines — on the original Antares. Kurt Eberly, deputy program manager for Antares at Orbital ATK, said there are no changes to this rocket as a result of that first flight.

“We took all the data we collected and video from the launch and performed a very thorough data review,” he said at the briefing. “We found no in-flight anomalies, which is great news. It was a very clean mission.”

However, Orbital ATK has failed to win other customers for the Antares rocket. The company developed both Antares and Cygnus as part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) award from NASA, believing that Antares could become a replacement for the aging Delta 2 from ULA. But unlike SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 developed during its own COTS agreement has won significant government and commercial business, Orbital has yet to receive an Antares launch contract outside of its commercial cargo work.

Eberly said that the company is continuing to market Antares for other NASA missions, as well as commercial business, but declined to discuss specifics about those efforts. “We are interacting with the civil government and commercial markets, and we are offering Antares,” he said.

For now, the focus for Orbital ATK is ensuring that Cygnus, launched on Antares, continues to meet NASA’s needs for space station resupply. “We continue to invest in the Cygnus spacecraft and the Antares rocket to be able to provide more to our customer,” DeMauro said.