OMAHA, Neb. — Alliant Techsystems (ATK) of Edina, Minn., has introduced a suborbital rocket that is expected to make its inaugural launch next year carrying two NASA payloads, and company officials see it as a stepping stone to a quick-reaction satellite launcher.
The suborbital rocket, which features existing ATK solid-fuel motors, is being developed entirely with internal funding, according to Charlie Precourt, vice president of strategy and business development for ATK’s Launch Systems Group.
Precourt declined to comment on the cost of the project during an Oct. 12 interview at the Strategic Space and Defense conference here.
The rocket, dubbed the ALV, is part of an ATK strategy to apply its rocket motors, in some cases as a prime contractor, to a variety of different missions, including satellite launchers, deep strike missiles armed with conventional or nuclear warheads, and missile defense interceptors, Precourt said.
By using the same basic motor hardware in different combinations for a range of missions, ATK could keep production rates steady and thereby offer lower unit costs to the U.S. government, he said.
ATK also envisions working motors built by other companies into the mix , according to George Torres, an ATK spokesman. Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., is the other major U.S. provider solid-rocket motors.
Debuting the ALV in a suborbital mission is part of what Precourt termed a “crawl, walk, run” approach as ATK builds up to more sophisticated vehicles.
ATK recently demonstrated on-pad assembly of the rocket, which is expected to make its maiden launch next year from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia. The company carried out an unguided sounding rocket launch from Wallops last year as a precursor to the NASA mission, he said.
The inaugural ALV will carry NASA’s Hypersonic Boundary Layer Transition Experiment, which is intended to help scientists better understand the effect of different layers of the atmosphere on the space shuttle’s structure, Precourt said. Also on board will be the Suborbital Aerodynamic Re-entry Experiment, which is part of a series of NASA payloads focused on flight dynamics and control system development.
The payloads were built by NASA as part of a Space Act agreement with ATK under which the company is providing the ALV launcher.
The suborbital ALV stands about 16 meters high, with a payload capacity of about 900 kilograms. The first stage is an Orion 50S motor that is used on systems including the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System interceptors as well as the Pegasus small-satellite launcher, Torres said. The second stage is a Star 37 motor that has been used on a variety of rockets including the Delta 2 launcher, Torres said.
ATK also is working on an ALV variant that would be capable of launching small satellites , Precourt said. The company is in discussions with the Defense Department and NASA about possible payloads but does not yet have a contract, he said.
An orbital version of the vehicle likely would utilize a larger motor, such as ATK’s Castor 120 or a Peacekeeper missile main stage, as its first stage, Torres said.
Precourt noted that there is competition in the market for providing responsive space launches from companies like Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif., and AirLaunch of Kirkland, Wash. However, as the Pentagon builds more small payloads as part of a series of efforts collectively known as Operationally Responsive Space, there will be opportunities for additional players , he said.