Twenty-nine seconds might not seem like much, but for Orbital Science Corporation it was 29 seconds of pure victory. NASA and Orbital conducted a successful hot firing of the company’s Antares rocket at 6 p.m. EST at the United State’s newest launch complex. The “hot-fire” test, as it is called, took place at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad-0A.
The test involved not only the checking out of the Antares twin AJ26 engines, but also the launch pad’s fueling systems in preparation for planned flights of this new launch vehicle. The test helped validate the readiness of the Antares first stage and is the last major milestone that has to be completed in preparation for the rocket’s maiden flight, planned for later this year.
“Today’s successful stage test positions us one step closer to supporting Orbital’s historic flight test,” said Aerojet Vice President of Space & Launch Systems Julie Van Kleeck. “We’re proud to deliver for the Antares team, and we’re looking forward to continuing the countdown toward the inaugural mission.”
The AJ26 engine is supplied by Aeorjet, which purchased the NK-33 engines from a Russian rocket manufacturer in the mid-90s and has since redubbed it the AJ26. The AJ26 is described by Aerojet as being an “oxidizer-rich, staged-combustion LO2/Kerosene engine.” Under this test, these engines were kept bolted down—even as they produced 68,000 lbs of thrust.
“Aerojet purchased the NK-33 engines from JSC Kuznetsov in the mid-1990s and has been developing design modifications to ensure that the AJ26 is suitable for U.S. commercial launch vehicles,” said Aerojet’s Executive Director of Space & Launch Systems Pete Cova. “As teammates, JSC Kuznetsov brings tremendous technical support to our efforts, and we are looking forward to supporting Orbital in its Cargo Resupply Contract with NASA.”
Orbital is a commercial space firm that, like Space Exploration Technologies, or “SpaceX,” is developing a rocket, the Antares, as well as the Cygnus cargo vessel under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract. SpaceX has already completed COTS’ objectives and has moved on to actual resupply flights to the International Space Station under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.
With the “hot-fire” test out of the way, Orbital is now poised to conduct a demonstration flight of the Antares. This mission will not carry a Cygnus spacecraft, which will be reserved for the following flight. The first Orbital will conduct under COTS. If Orbital can accomplish COTS’ requirements, it can begin conducting CRS flights. There is a lot riding on the success of this and upcoming missions as NASA has a $1.9 billion contract with Orbital under CRS.
“This pad test is an important reminder of how strong and diverse the commercial space industry is in our nation,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development. “A little more than one year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we had a U.S company resupplying the International Space Station. Now, another is taking the next critical steps to launch from America’s newest gateway to low-Earth orbit. Today marks significant progress for Orbital, MARS, and the NASA team.”
NASA’s Wallops facility provided more than just a backdrop for the “hot-fire” test. More than 16,000 rockets have been sent aloft during the facility’s 67-year history. The personnel working there provided communications, data collection, range safety, and other forms of launch range support.
NASA has been working to empower a number of smaller, private space companies to take over the role of sending cargo into low-Earth orbit as the space agency focuses on sending crew beyond the orbit of Earth for the first time in more than four decades. To date, none of these companies has launched any crew, and, as mentioned, only two unmanned flights to the International Space Station have been conducted by SpaceX.