Assembly and testing of a significantly upgraded version of Orbital ATK’s commercially developed Antares rocket has kicked into high gear and is on target for rebirth – as the clock ticks down towards its ‘Return to Flight’ by approximately mid-2016 from a launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia, company managers told Universe Today during a recent up close media visit to see the actual flight hardware.
Mission integration operations are in full swing right now as technicians were actively processing Antares hardware during my visit to Orbital ATK’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in December.
“We are working on integrating, processing and testing the Antares rocket hardware,” Mike Pinkston, Vice President and General Manager Orbital ATK’s Antares program, told Universe Today in exclusive interviews at NASA Wallops and the Kennedy Space Center.
The cavernous Wallops Island HIF facility was filled from end-to-end with a pair of first stage cores, newly upgraded RD-181 first stage engines, a second stage, interstages, payload fairings and other key components slated to launch on the first two Antares missions in the spring and fall of 2016.
“We are planning to resume Antares launches in late May or June 2016,” said Pinkston.
The currently planned spring 2016 blastoff will be the first for the private Antares rocket since its catastrophic launch failure on Oct. 28, 2014, just seconds after liftoff from Wallops. It was carrying Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo freighter on the critical Orb-3 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch mishap was traced to a failure in the AJ26 first stage engine turbopump.
The revamped Antares 230 launch vehicle has been upgraded with a pair of modern new first stage engines, the Russian-built RD-181 fueled by LOX/kerosene. They replace the refurbished 40 year old AJ26 engines originally known as the NK-33 that were originally built during the Soviet era.
“Using the RD-181s will result in a 25 percent greater payload to orbit,” Pinkston told Universe Today.
But before any launch, the fully integrated Antares first stage still has to pass a hot fire test with the RD-181 engines at launch pad OA on Wallops Island.
“The hot fire stage is scheduled for early March 2016,” Pinkston told me. “It will be a full duration 30 second test at full thrust. The test uses the core for the OA-7 launch later in the year.”
“The hot fire test will run through all the operating points and execute all sequences.”
A similar 30 second hot fire test was conducted in advance of the first Antares launch to test out all rocket and launch pad systems.
The first Antares booster to launch will be named the OA-5 mission and will use the other core stage currently being processed inside the HIF, he explained.
During our media visit, the first set of RD-181 engines was seen already attached to the base of the first stage core, which is built in Ukraine.
A second set of RD-181 flight engines has also arrived for processing in the HIF.
Orbital ATK quickly decided to replace the AJ-26 with the RD-181 soon after the Orb-3 accident, said Pinkston. Evaluations had already been in place to replace the AJ26 prior to the accident.
What changes were made to accommodate the RD-181 vs the AJ26 engines?
“For the RD-181 engines there are new thrust adapters, new avionics to control the engine actuators, and new propellant feed lines,” Pinkston told me.
“There are also some small changes to the first stage core itself.”
“The RD-181 engines are basically a drop in replacement engine. Its similar in size to the AJ-26. But has a better thrust profile.”
Earlier this month, the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighter already accomplished its return to flight mission when it was launched to the ISS on the OA-4 mission (also known as CRS-4) using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for the first time.
OA-4 successfully lifted off on Dec. 6, 2015 with over 7000 pounds of cargo from Cap-e Canaveral, Florida – as outlined in my on site reports. It berthed at the ISS on Dec. 9.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
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