With the return to flight of Antares quickly approaching, launch operations at Wallops Island are in full swing both in the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) and at Launch Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). AmericaSpace had the opportunity to get an inside look at the integration activities this week for the first two upgraded Antares launch vehicles and the newly refurbished launch pad.
Currently on schedule for a targeted launch date of May 31, the OA-5 mission will be the first Antares launch from Wallops since the failed Orb-3 mission in late October 2014. It will also be the first flight of the new upgraded Antares, powered by RD-181 engines. This mission will follow the OA-6 mission in March, which was added to the manifest when Orbital ATK decided to purchase a second Atlas-V rocket from United Launch Alliance (ULA). Because preparations for OA-5 were already underway when the second Atlas-V launch was ordered, the mission numbers are out of sequence.
Ahead of the OA-5 mission, a 30-second static hot-fire test of the upgraded Antares first stage will be conducted on the launch pad in March. This test firing was originally planned for December or January, but a change in logistics allowed for more preparation time. Orbital ATK originally planned to use the entire OA-5 vehicle for the hot-fire test before integrating Cygnus. Instead, a separate core stage will be used so that processing of the OA-5 vehicle can proceed in parallel with the test. The test stage will later be refurbished and used to launch the OA-7 mission in October.
Repairs at the launch pad were completed on Sept. 30, along with upgrades to support the new Antares configuration. According to Dale Nash, Director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority: “We completed a performance test of all the new systems in the first week of November. We will continue to run the procedures, do the simulations, and make sure everyone is up to speed and in launch mode to support the hot fire in the spring and the return to flight and a pretty busy manifest after that.”
According to Nash, the launch pad is now flight ready and his team could support a launch with only a few weeks notice. Repairs have been made to the ablative material inside the flame trench after the first hot-fire in 2013 and five subsequent launches took their toll. Having a fresh layer of insulation will be essential for the upcoming hot-fire test.
“The hot fire usually causes more wear and tear because it sits here and dwells for more than 30 seconds.” said Nash. “On a normal launch, it’s no more than a few seconds before it goes away.” These repairs should sustain the pad for the hot-fire and four to five launches in rapid succession.
Inside the Horizontal Integration Facility, there is a frenzy of activity as the first two upgraded Antares vehicles come together. The high bay currently houses two Antares core stages, the transpoter-erector-launcher (TEL), four RD-181 engines, a Castor 30XL upper stage, a payload fairing, and interstate adapters.
“In summary, we have all the major hardware assemblies now in the HIF needed for both the stage test in March and the first flight in May. Our team has their hands full in putting it all together and testing.” said Mike Pinkston, Orbital ATK’s Antares Program Manager. While Orbital ATK recently took delivery of the engine set that will power OA-5, the engines for the hot fire test have already been mounted to their core stage. “We’re mostly complete with the integration of the engines and are really getting into the testing phase now, making sure everything is working as it should.”
The RD-181 is the biggest change made to Antares after the original AJ-26 engine was blamed for causing the Orb-3 accident. In addition to improved reliability, the RD-181 will offer a performance boost for Antares. “The RD-181 has a little higher thrust, a little higher specific impulse, which results in about a 20-25% increase in our cargo capacity to CRS orbit.” said Pinkston. This, combined with the extra capacity of the enhanced Cygnus, will enable Orbital ATK to deliver up to 3200 kg of cargo to the space station. Due to the reliability of the related RD-180 engine and the close compatibility between the RD-181 and Antares core stage, NASA is comfortable flying a CRS mission on the first upgraded Antares. Orbital ATK decided there was no need to invest in a dedicated test flight. “Being back building launch vehicles and getting ready to fly in a full tempo is just a great feeling for us and the whole company.” said Pingston. “We can’t wait to get one out on the pad.”
Meanwhile, the company’s first enhanced Cygnus spacecraft is berthed to the ISS after its return to flight on a ULA Atlas V. The OA-4 mission launched from Cape Canaveral on December 6, berthed three days later, and will stay until Feb. 7. The crew has started unloading the cargo, which includes their Christmas presents from Earth. The cargo module for the next mission is en route to Kennedy Space Center for the OA-6 mission, which is on schedule to launch March 10. According to Dave Hastman, deputy director of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus program, the cargo module for OA-5 has already been inspected and will be delivered to Wallops in March. The service modules for both missions are nearing completion at their Dulles facility. One will ship to Kennedy in January and the other to Wallops in April.
BELOW: Additional photos, courtesy of Elliot Severn / AmericaSpace.
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