Aerojet has conducted a successful test fire of the company’s AJ26 rocket engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center located in Mississippi. The test fire was conducted on Friday, Jan. 18. NASA, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and Aerojet monitored the test firing. The AJ26 is planned for use on Orbital’s Antares launch vehicle.
Friday’s test fire marked the eleventh AJ26 to be tested at Stennis. The AJ26 is, in actuality, a Russian engine formerly known as the NK-33. Aerojet modified the engines by removing some harnessing and adding systems that would make the engines compatible with U.S. systems.
“This test kicks off a crucial year for the AJ26 engine,” said Aerojet’s Executive Director of Space & Launch Programs Pete Cova. “We have multiple engine acceptance tests at Stennis in the plan, as well as support of the upcoming Antares Stage 1 Hot Fire Test and the first demonstration test flight. Our team has worked hard to get to this point, and we’re looking forward to seeing AJ26 engines fly.”
After engineers have reviewed the data from the test, the AJ26 will be readied for flight and then shipped to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, where it will be installed into the first stage of Orbital’s Antares rocket.
An Aerojet press release describes the AJ26 in the following terms: Aerojet’s AJ26 engine is an oxidizer-rich, staged-combustion LO2/Kerosene engine that achieves very high performance in a lightweight compact package. The AJ26 is a modified NK-33 engine originally designed and produced in Russia for the Russian N1 lunar launch vehicle. Aerojet purchased approximately 40 NK-33 engines in the mid-1990s and, under contract with Orbital, the company is modifying the engines specifically for the Antares rocket. Aerojet has been developing design modifications to the NK-33 since the mid-1990s to ensure that the AJ26 is suitable for commercial launchers.
The first Antares test flight is slated to occur next month. If all goes according to plan, the rocket will be used to send Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft into orbit. Orbital is one of the two companies currently working under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or “COTS,” contract. The other company is SpaceX, which has already demonstrated the viability of both their Falcon 9 rocket as well as the company’s Dragon spacecraft (the latter has already traveled and delivered payloads to the International Space Station twice).
Orbital has selected NASA Wallops Flight Facility located in Virginia to launch Antares from.
NASA has expressed support for Orbital, despite the fact that two failures on the firm’s Taurus XL launch vehicle were lost (both the Glory and Orbiting Carbon Observatory missions were lost when the rockets’ payload fairings failed to separate), costing the space agency some $700 million. Despite a handful of failures, Orbital has been involved with a number of successes, including the Fermi and GALEX space telescopes, the X-43 scramjet test vehicle, the GeoEye Satellite Imaging Company, as well as the Minotaur and Pegasus launch vehicles. It is hoped that with the rise of the Antares and Cygnus rocket spacecraft duo that Orbital will be able to add yet another feather into its cap, as well as strengthen the role of commercial partners in achieving NASA’s goal. To this end, the AJ26 is viewed as an important element of Orbital’s aspirations.