Re-engined Antares To Carry Space Station Cargo in 2016 Debut

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PARIS — Orbital ATK on Feb. 19 said its revamped Antares rocket featuring a new main engine would make its first launch in March 2016 carrying a fully loaded cargo ship bound for the International Space Station, without a preceding demonstration flight but following a January test firing of the rocket’s first stage.

In a conference call with investors, Orbital ATK officials did not provide updates on their contract for the new engines, being built by Energomash of Khimki, Russia — nor were they asked to do so.

But Orbital ATK Chief Executive David W. Thompson did address the situation at Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye manufacturing company, which builds the Antares rocket’s first-stage cores.

A Yuzhnoye official responsible for selling the company’s rocket hardware overseas said here Feb. 4 that business has not been affected by the military conflict with Russia despite the fact that Yuzhnoye is located in Dnepropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine.

Thompson said Orbital so far has seen no reason to worry that Yuzhnoye would not be able to deliver on its contract.

David W. Thompson
“We do have a fallback plan if things really deteriorated there,” Orbital ATK CEO David W. Thompson said about receiving Antares first-stage cores from Ukraine-based Yuzhnoye. “Right now that does not appear to be happening.” Credit: Orbital ATK

“It’s an area that we’re watching closely, including a near full-time presence at their facilities,” Thompson said. “We need five additional first-stage cores over the course of the next two or two-and-one-half years. Three of those are complete and two are almost complete. We do have a fallback plan if things really deteriorated there. Right now that does not appear to be happening.”

Orbital’s last Antares mission ended in failure when the rocket exploded seconds after liftoff in October, a mishap that destroyed a space station cargo vehicle and hastened the company’s pursuit of a new main engine for the launcher.

To make good on its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo delivery contract with NASA, which calls for a certain amount of payload to be delivered to the space station by late 2016, Orbital contracted with United Launch Alliance of Denver for an Atlas 5 launch of the Orbital-provided Cygnus cargo vehicle.

The Atlas 5 is scheduled to launch the first of the enhanced-version Cygnus modules in October. Thompson said NASA may wish to delay the launch to November depending on space station traffic, but that Orbital will be ready in October.

Then comes the January test firing of the Antares first stage equipped with the new RD-181 engine. “Unless something surprising occurs, we should then be able to proceed pretty expeditiously to the launch of the re-engined vehicle in March of next year, and that will have a full cargo load.” Thompson said.

NASA has begun a fresh space station commercial resupply contract competition. Orbital and SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, are bidding for the new work, and Thompson said “it’s certainly possible that others submitted proposals” before NASA’s December deadline. Thompson said he would expect a NASA decision on the new supply contract, called CRS-2, in June.

The CRS contract generated slightly less than $300 million in revenue for Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK in 2014 and would have been the company’s second-largest contract had the merger between Orbital and ATK’s aerospace and defense division been in effect for all of 2014.

Orbital ATK Chief Financial Officer Garrett E. Pierce said during the conference call that NASA owed the company $240 million in unbilled CRS-related payments and that the billing would be done in the coming year.

In an indication of how much Orbital’s operating parameters are changing with the addition of the ATK business, Thompson said the merged company’s biggest contract in 2014 was for small-caliber ammunition production for the U.S. Army, valued at $430 million.

Orbital ATK is providing propulsion for NASA's SLS Credit: NASA
NASA’s SLS, which Orbital ATK is providing propulsion for, was the company’s third-largest contract at $250 million. Credit: NASA

NASA’s new heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, for which Orbital ATK is providing propulsion, was the third-biggest contract, at $250 million. A medium- and large-caliber ammunition contract for the Army and other U.S. military services was in fourth place, at $225 million.

The new Orbital ATK would have reported $4.4 billion in revenue in 2014, with a pretax earnings margin of 9.9 percent.

The company is divided into three divisions — Flight Systems, Defense Systems and Space Systems. Space Systems in 2014 was the smallest and least profitable, with revenue at $1.15 billion and a pretax profit margin of 5.5 percent.

Antares is in the Flight Systems division, while the Cygnus cargo module and the company’s satellite production business are in the Space Systems division.

While it is now in last place in revenue and profit, the Space Systems division is expected to grow by 7-9 percent per year in the next three years, compared to 1-3 percent for Defense Systems and 4-6 percent for Flight Systems.

Commercial geostationary-orbit telecommunications satellite sales are what will drive this growth, Thompson said. “That product line is expected to be the fastest-growing of anything we’re doing,” he said.

Orbital won three commercial telecommunications satellite awards in 2014 and expects to win three or four in 2015, a year when the total number of commercial telecommunications satellites to be ordered is expected to be between 22 and 25.

Orbital’s GeoStar-2 and more-powerful GeoStar-3 products both compete at the lighter end of the geostationary satellite range, for missions requiring between 5 and 8 kilowatts of power.