Orbital Sciences Commences Antares Operations

Antares Rollout
(Credit Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Orbital Sciences Corporation announced today that it is beginning preparations for the first launch of its new Antares rocket at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia.  After delays related to certifying the pad, and most recently to a bad battery in its transporter assembly, OSC began rolling the Antares to the launch pad for a pad checkout and wet dress rehearsal, to be followed by a 30 second hold down test firing.

If all goes as planned,  the first launch could occur one roughly one month after the test firing. The maiden launch, much like the original launch of the SpaceX falcon 9 in June 2010, will be equipped with an instrumented mass simulator of the Cygnus spacecraft which is slated to conduct an initial test flight to ISS in early 2013. If successful, the Antares/Cygnus combination will mark a second major milestone for NASA’s COTS program, and a demonstration that a company such as Orbital Sciences Corporation which is not exactly “NewSpace” can perform effectively outside of the budget devouring cost-plus contracting environment.

A successful maiden launch campaign would also mark the introduction of  a new, medium class launch vehicle to the U.S. industrial base, albeit with some qualifications.  Like the Atlas V, the Antares is powered by Russian built rocket engines, which in this case are re-certified  NK-33 engines left over from the abandoned Soviet lunar program..  Now designated the Aerojet AJ-26, each Antares features two engines producing a combined thrust of 680,000 lb.  It is worth noting that although the Antares is expendable, the engines themselves are potentially reusable, and three NK-33’s  formed the basis for the proposed reusable Rocketplane-Kistler K-1 launch vehicle which was an original winner of the COTS competition in 2006.   RpK  was subsequently disqualified in 2007 when it could not meet funding requirements, leading to a new round of competition and Orbital Science’s comparatively late entry into the effort.

Unlike SpaceX and the Falcon 9 however, OSC is following a conventional path and has no plans to develop a reusable version of its new launch vehicle, which would be complicated in any event by the fact that it employs a solid rocket based second stage. As such, like so many engines before it, the ultimate fate of the AJ-26 lies waiting on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.

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