Orbital ATK’s plans to resume cargo flights to the International Space Station, using both an existing launch vehicle and an upgraded version of its own Antares rocket, face risks that could delay those missions, according to a new report.
While Orbital ATK says it is on schedule to have the new version of its Antares launch vehicle ready for flight in March, the vehicle’s first launch may be delayed by other missions to the International Space Station, including a Cygnus cargo spacecraft launching on an Atlas 5.
The company also said it is on track to start launches of its Antares rocket with a new Russian engine in March.
A Virginia-owned launchpad damaged in October when Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket exploded moments after liftoff is almost fixed, but the company is at loggerheads with the state and the federal government over who should pay the last $2 million owed in repairs.
Separate investigations into two high-profile commercial launch accidents six months ago are entering their final phases and will be completed in the next few months or, in some cases, weeks.
A report on the October failure of an Antares launch vehicle is due to be delivered to the Federal Aviation Administration within days, with a problem in an engine turbopump identified as the most likely cause of the failure, an Orbital ATK executive said April 14.
The revamped Orbital ATK Antares rocket featuring a new main engine will 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.
The FAA is requesting a nine-percent budget increase beginning in October for its commercial space office, whose resources have been stressed by an increase in launch activity and two high-profile accident investigations.
Orbital Sciences Corp. expects to take delivery of the first pair of its newly purchased Russian rocket engines in June or July, with a second pair arriving before the end of the year, under a contract whose value Orbital said has been overstated in the Russian press.
Orbital has contracted with Russia’s Energomash to provide RD-181 engines to power the first stage of Orbital’s Antares rocket, replacing the AJ-26 engine that Orbital suspects was the origin of Antares’ Oct. 28 failure.
Orbital Sciences will buy at least one Atlas 5 rocket from United Launch Alliance to resume cargo deliveries to the international space station for NASA in the fourth quarter of 2015 while it works to return its Antares rocket to flight after an October failure.
Orbital will get most of its planned revenue from NASA for its Oct. 28 launch despite the rocket’s failure because the milestone that triggered payment was the rocket’s ignition and liftoff.
ATK Chief Executive Mark W. DeYoung said there are no near-term liquid-propulsion alternatives to Russian engines for U.S. rockets.
Initial analysis of data from the Oct. 28 failure of an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket indicates that a turbopump in one of the two main engines on the rocket’s first stage malfunctioned seconds after liftoff, company executives said Nov. 5.