The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia. Credit: Orbital ATK

PARIS — Satellite and rocket builder Orbital Sciences said Oct. 20 the inaugural launch of its Taurus 2 rocket and the vehicle’s delivery of supplies to the international space station have been postponed again, by between two and three months, following delays in making the rocket’s launch base ready for operations.

The Wallops Island, Va., launch base, being developed by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, will not be completed before the week of Oct. 24, with final certification and handoff to Orbital expected in early January, the company said.

Assuming that schedule holds firm, Orbital will conduct a test of the Taurus 2’s first stage on the launch pad in late January, and the inaugural Taurus 2 flight in late February or early March.

This will be followed, in early May, by a Taurus 2 flight carrying the Cygnus station cargo vehicle, a flight during which Cygnus is expected to demonstrate its ability to berth with the station.

The first operational space station cargo-delivery mission for Taurus 2 and Cygnus will occur in late August or early September under this revised schedule, Orbital officials said.

In a conference call with investors, Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson said development of the Taurus 2 rocket and the Cygnus supply vehicle are proceeding well. In particular, he said, Orbital and its supplier, Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., are returning to regular deliveries of the Russian-designed AJ-26 first-stage engine to the Wallops Island facility following a fire during an engine test in June.

The fire was attributed to a fuel line defect that required remedial work on about one-third of the several dozen engines. Thompson said four flight-ready AJ-26 engines are already at Wallops, with several more to arrive in December.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital and NASA are dividing the cost of preparing Taurus 2 and Cygnus under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract. This contract includes a first test flight of Taurus 2, and the demonstration flight of Taurus 2 with the Cygnus supply carrier.

Once this contract is concluded with a successful Taurus 2-Cygnus demonstration, Orbital will begin delivery of eight Taurus 2-Cygnus launches under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract.

With Taurus 2 and Cygnus apparently on track, the only holdup for the launch is the preparation of the spaceport, Thompson said.

“Additional work had to be performed to more thoroughly clean the propellant and pressurization tanks delivered last year but not maintained in a proper way, and some structural rework on the launch mount, which supports the rocket,” Thompson said during the conference call. He said the necessary work on the launch structure is the result of a lack of subcontractor management by the Virginia Spaceport Authority.

Beyond the NASA space station resupply contract, Orbital hopes to sell Taurus 2 vehicles for other NASA missions including science and Earth observation satellites. NASA and Orbital are negotiating Taurus 2’s addition as a NASA-approved vehicle for satellite launches, Thompson said.

The U.S. Air Force is expected to issue a request for bids from prospective launch-service suppliers late this year or early in 2011. Orbital will respond to this bid request in hopes of being placed on the Air Force’s list of approved rockets for future military missions.

Launches of commercial telecommunications satellites from the Wallops Island facility would be difficult given the facility’s location and the power of the Taurus 2. But commercial Earth observation satellites could be launched there, and Thompson said talks with commercial Earth observation satellite owners were under way.

Orbital has won two orders this year for commercial telecommunications satellites — from SES of Luxembourg and Thailand’s Thaicom satellite operator. Thompson said the company is confident it will win a third order before the year is out, a year in which the total commercial telecommunications satellite market is expected to register between 18 and 20 satellite orders.

For 2012, Thompson said Orbital expects to win three orders for commercial geostationary-orbit telecommunications satellites out of a global telecommunications satellite market that is expected to reach between 20 and 22 spacecraft. The company continues to seek an inaugural customer for a proposed higher-power version of its current commercial telecommunications satellite product line.

The recent successful launches of satellites for SES and Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat resulted in two commercial satellites being removed from Orbital’s backlog. SES and Intelsat had included two other satellites as options in existing contracts with Orbital that would have been exercised in the event of a launch failure, Thompson said.

Four more Orbital-built commercial telecommunications satellites are scheduled for launch in 2012 — one each for Intelsat, Avanti Communications of London, Star One of Brazil and the government of Azerbaijan.

For the nine months ending Sept. 30, Orbital reported revenue of $1.01 billion, up 6.5 percent over the same period a year ago. Operating income, at $57.6 million, was up 8.7 percent.



With Launch Site Behind Schedule Taurus 2 Facing Two-month Delay

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.