Third Time’s the Charm for Orbital’s Antares

Orbital Sciences Corporation successfully launched the first of its Antares rockets today from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Photo Credit:Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace
Orbital Sciences Corporation successfully launched the first of its Antares rockets today from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Photo Credit:Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va — Orbital Sciences Corp. has successfully launched its Antares rocket on the long-delayed “A-ONE” test flight from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va. Liftoff of the 133-foot-tall vehicle—the first cryogenically-propelled rocket ever built and flown by Orbital—occurred on time at 5:00:02 p.m. EDT, right at the start of the launch window. Antares’ beautiful ascent into the early evening sky has surely raised an unbearable weight from the shoulders of Orbital, whose next focus after this mission is to conduct a full-up demo of its Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station, possibly as soon as June.

This was the first launch of one of Orbital's Antares launch vehicles. If all goes according to plan, the next flight of the rocket will send the company's Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Bennett Scarborough / Scarborough Photography
This was the first launch of one of Orbital’s Antares launch vehicles. If all goes according to plan, the next flight of the rocket will send the company’s Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Bennett Scarborough / Scarborough Photography

The launch proved charmed with third-time-lucky fortune, as Orbital saw its baby finally fly. Two previous attempts were scrubbed due to technical and weather issues. On Wednesday, a data umbilical cable linking the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) to the rocket’s second stage prematurely disconnected and prompted a scrub, just 12 minutes ahead of the scheduled liftoff. A second attempt yesterday was also frustrated, not by a technical issue, but by unacceptable high-altitude winds. However, evaluations late last week placed the Orbital team in a position to attempt two back-to-back launch attempts on Saturday and also today, during a two-hour window which extended from 5-7 p.m.

Weather conditions at Wallops at dawn this morning seemed to show a marked improvement over yesterday, and the A-ONE flight controllers received their “Call to Stations” at around 9 a.m. AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker noted meteorologists’ predictions of an 80-percent probability of acceptable conditions at T-zero, with the main worry focused on a chance that surface winds could violate the launch attempt. However, balloon deployments during the early afternoon returned positive results, indicating that weather conditions and the range debris limits were both “Green.” By 2 p.m., the process of chilling-down the fuel lines of Antares’ first stage, which is powered by two Aerojet-built AJ-26 engines, with liquid nitrogen had begun, ahead of the fueling process. This hour-long “chill-down” protocol, explained the Tracker, was designed to “prevent a shock to the equipment being hit by a rapid temperature change which could cause a catastrophic failure.” Finally, a little after 3:30 p.m., the A-ONE launch team was polled for its recommendation and returned a unanimous “Go” to march towards a liftoff at the opening of the window at 5 p.m. In the minutes which followed the “Go” call, the first propellants began flowing into the engines’ fuel lines. The AJ-26s, which can trace their heritage back to the Soviet Union’s ill-fated N-1 lunar rocket, are fed by a refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) and liquid oxygen.

The loading process was critically timed to begin about 90 minutes ahead of the scheduled launch, because of time limits associated with the rapid boil-off of the cryogenic propellants. Shortly after the beginning of fueling, the A-ONE team refined the launch time to within a 15-minute block, between 5:00-5:15 p.m. “Extending beyond the 5:15 p.m. deadline will result in an automatic scrub for the day,” explained the Tracker. “The reduced timeframe is because of the boiling-off of the [liquid oxygen] … after the completion of the tanking … 15 minutes beyond the planned T-zero will result in too much LOX boiling-off to launch safely to the desired orbit.” During the fueling process, a helicopter spotted a fishing boat within the launch danger zone, but by 4:10 p.m. it had been escorted away.

Antares and the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) are clearly visible in this composite image. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace
Antares and the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) are clearly visible in this composite image. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace

The final polling of the launch team occurred in a two-step process, beginning shortly after 4:30 p.m., with the first confirmation of “Green across all stations.” At the same time, out at Pad 0A—as the effects of liquid oxygen boil-off became apparent, almost concealing Antares’ name at one stage—the final chill-down of the AJ-26 engines got underway to condition them for the ignition sequence. The 75-minute-long fueling process concluded at 4:45 p.m., with propellants at flight-ready levels, and at 4:48 p.m. the final “Go for Launch” was received from the A-ONE teams. Antares’ primary payload—a mass simulator for the Cygnus cargo craft—was transferred to internal power, and at 4:51 p.m. the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) was armed to enable it to execute a rapid retraction from the vehicle the moment of liftoff. Five minutes before launch, the Flight Termination System was activated, enabling the ordnance which would destroy Antares in the event of a major malfunction or an off-nominal situation.

At 4:56:30 p.m.—when the clock reached T-3 minutes and 30 seconds—the “terminal count” got underway, with the transfer of command to Antares’ autosequencer, which assumed primary control of all vehicle critical functions. Ignition of the twin AJ-26 engines commenced at T-2 seconds, with computer-controlled health checks conducted as they ramped up to full power. Each of these powerplants produces a sea-level thrust of 338,000 pounds and liftoff occurred at 5:00:02 p.m., with Antares clearing the tower five seconds later. Watched by several hundred spectators—including representatives of AmericaSpace—the vehicle immediately commenced a pitch and roll program maneuver, which established it onto the proper flight azimuth of 107.8 degrees.

Within 80 seconds, Antares passed through the period of maximum aerodynamic turbulence (nicknamed “Max Q”) and the AJ-26 engines continued to burn hot and hard, finally shutting down—as planned—a little under four minutes after launch. At 5:03:55 p.m., having reached an altitude of 66 miles, the first stage separated, and the vehicle coasted for almost two minutes, before the jettisoning of the bullet-like payload shroud at 5:05:19 p.m. and ignition of the solid-fueled Castor-30A second-stage engine at 5:05:28 p.m. The Castor engine, built by Alliant TechSystems, produced a thrust of 89,000 pounds and burned for two and a half minutes, providing the final impulse to inject the Cygnus mass simulator into a low-Earth orbit of 155-186 miles, inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator. A quartet of tiny picosatellites—three provided by NASA’s Ames Research Center of Moffett Field, Calif., to demonstrate the use of smartphones for CubeSat avionics, and an amateur-radio satellite—were deployed from a dispenser at 5:09 p.m.

Product placement. ATK's logo can be clearly seen in the upper right of this image of the company's CASTOR 30 solid rocket motor. The CASTOR 30 is Antares' upper stage engine which will send Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA TV
Product placement. ATK’s logo can be clearly seen in the upper right of this image of the company’s CASTOR 30 solid rocket motor. The CASTOR 30 is Antares’ upper stage engine which will send Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA TV

“This is a great day for the Antares team,” said Scott Lehr, vice president and general manager of ATK’s Defense and Commercial Division. “We congratulate Orbital for a successful test flight  today. ATK is proud to be a part of their Antares team, and we look forward to helping Orbital successfully carry out its first cargo resupply mission to the  International Space Station (ISS) later this year.”

ATK contributed the CASTOR 30 motor is the engine that powers Antares upper stage. Upgraded versions of the solid rocket motor’s will power Cygnus to its rendezvous with the International Space Station on future Antares flights.

The final key event for A-ONE occurred triumphantly at 5:10:03 p.m., when the 16.5-foot-long Cygnus mass simulator itself separated smoothly from the second stage and entered free flight. Equipped with instrumentation to gather data on the launch, ascent, and orbital flight environments, the 8,400-pound simulator serves as a precursor to the demo mission of a “real” Cygnus to the International Space Station later this summer.

“Today’s successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA’s plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket. In addition to providing further evidence that our strategic space exploration plan is moving forward, this test also inaugurates America’s newest spaceport capable of launching to the space station, opening up additional opportunities for commercial and government users.”

This Antares carried a mass simulator of the Cygnus spacecraft. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace
This Antares carried a mass simulator of the Cygnus spacecraft. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace

As described in AmericaSpace’s A-ONE preview article, the first flight of this new rocket has come at the end of a long and difficult road for Orbital Sciences, the Dulles, Va.-based aerospace company, which in December 2008 won a $1.9 billion slice of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) pie. The provisions of this contract require Orbital to transport upwards of 44,000 pounds of equipment, payloads, and supplies to the International Space Station aboard eight missions of its Antares-boosted Cygnus cargo craft by 2016. However, efforts to configure the MARS site on Wallops Island for Antares operations have been mired with technical difficulty. As part of the redevelopment of the site, Pad 0A was completely demolished and a new complex was assembled with kerosene and liquid oxygen tankage for Antares. Problems with the cryogenic handling equipment and the completion of MARS conspired to delay the A-ONE mission by over a year.

However, today’s spectacular launch—nominal in all respects—may still place the company in a strong position to attempt an inaugural demo of the Cygnus craft to the space station “around mid-year,” with AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker noting “late June or early July” for the mission. It will deliver 800 pounds of equipment and supplies to the sprawling international outpost. That flight will follow a rendezvous profile not dissimilar to the one followed by CRS competitor SpaceX’s Dragon ships: completing a series of incremental steps, over a two-day period, to bring it within range of the station’s 57-foot-long Canadarm2 robotic arm for grappling and berthing onto the Harmony node. Orbital’s current manifest shows an ambitious 2013 schedule for Antares: following the A-ONE launch, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demo to the space station will occur in the summer, with the first dedicated CRS mission tentatively slated for September and, perhaps, CRS-2 in December.

 Photo Credit: NASA / Wallops Flight Facility
Photo Credit: NASA / Wallops Flight Facility

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Missions » ISS » COTS » Missions » A-ONE »


  1. Wow another private launch that went up without a hitch….Maybe this whole rocket business is much easier than we have been led to believe? Or the technology is way past mature…

  2. I don’t believe any of this is ‘easy’ or ‘well past mature’. I think that the reason yesterday’s launch went without a hitch is because Orbital put an enormous amount of hard work, blood, sweat, tears, time, attention and care into making their vehicle the best it could be.

    And for that they should be justly proud.

    • Ben,
      I just listened to the MARS-ONE presser on their trip to Mars…And was surprised to here them say how all the technology is presently available just needing to be assembled for the mission….Do you think this happens by 2023 or is this a PR stunt?

    • You’re so right Ben! The moment we start thinking of space travel as ‘easy’, is the moment we’ll start repeating the mistakes of the past. NASA learned that the very hard way…

  3. Ah, the traces of sychronicity! I was just telling my opinion about it.

    Tracy, I’m sorry if I disappoint you, but MarsOne’s plan is neither ‘precise’, nor ‘detailed’ and it hardly is based upon ‘existing technology’. If the technology is so available today, then why NASA or SpaceX isn’t on Mars already? Why does Elon Musk say that it’ll take his company about 15 years to get there?

    The only technology available to MarsOne today, is PowerPoint and Adobe Premiere.

    Adding insult to injury, IMHO, the whole endeavour of MarsOne is sadly trivialising the concept of space travel and doesn’t do space exploration any favours. It makes it look like a joke and a really bad one actually!

    It’s good for the no-brainer TV fantasy of ‘Big Brother’-type of shows, but not for real-life space exploration.

    • I thought the Presser was really interesting…They said a couple of things that really made me wonder. They mentioned SpaceX by name and then they said that the base would be Solar powered. SpaceX and Bigelow could contract the complete travel to mars and they might charge substantially less for some of the first flights to prove technology and market generation…A solar power plant would be considerably cheaper than a nuclear system which is what I thought it would take..Finally they are stressing this is NOT a scientific mission and will not go looking for life rather just the opposite…So I think NASA could be secretly baking this for the basic human research effects of the planet..

      • I take so many issues with MarsOne, I don’t know where to start…

        -They say they want to send a rover first around 2018, for reconnessaince. Who will design and build it? How they will land it on the presice spot they want on the planet? NASA’s Curiosity rover, with its highly accurate EDL landing system and Skycrane manuever, still had a landing elipse 25km by 7 km long. That’s still a lot of ground! Will MarsOne’s rover do better? And if so, why aren’t those designers haven’t been employed by JPL yet?

        -Worse than that, how are they planning to deliver on the surface of Mars, huge payloads of living habitats and equipment? For the same reasons mentioned above, how are they gonna land each living habitat close to each other, and not separated by dozens of km apart? As mentioned earlier, the best precise landing on Mars ever, was Curiosity’s, and that still had a big landing elipse dozens of km wide. Earlier landings on Mars, had a landing elipse much wider than that.

        -Even worse, how are they going to deliver those habitats, weighting dozens or hundreds of tons on Mars’s surface? The heaviest payload to land on Mars ever, is again, Curiosity, which weighted just under a ton. If the technology exists today to land hundreds of tons on Mars, then why SpaceX isn’t there yet?

        -What type of life support systems will they use? Thermal shielding? Radiation shielding? Are there any specifications? Who will build them?

        -Even if all those questions were answered, is everyone so sure that the public will give them the TV viewing figures they want? Has anyone realised that manned space flight isn’t a TV reality show? When the general public thinks of space, it probably thinks of fast-track, shoot’em up action, explosions, and sensual aliens. Sorry, Mars exploration will not be ‘Star Wars’. It will be much more like ‘2001, a Space Odyssey’, with long and silent orbital maneuvers, ‘boring’ tech-talk, and much of ‘doing nothing’ till you get there, 8 or 9 months since launch. How exciting will that be for an audience drenched in Hollywood-style blockbuster space adventures? How exciting and watchable today is Kubrick’s ‘2001’ for someone not interested in space? Just look the history of America’s space program. In the ’60’s people were going to the Moon! Can you imagine something more spectacular? Yet, after Apollo 11, the public was rapidly losing interest. It took Apollo 13 a near catastrophe, for the space program to make headlines again. And after that, how many were watching? What would be the fate of the Apollo program, if its funding was based on TV viewing ratings?

        -Adding insult to injury, I also have moral concerns as well. What happens if the first MarsOne expedition lands, but those behind it can’t support it further because TV ratings had dropped after a while and the funding is inadequate? Will we all just say ‘oh well’, shrug it off, and let everyone on Mars die, because everyone else on Earth will have lost interest?

        Maybe it’a because I really hate reality TV and ‘Big Brother’-type of shows, but I don’t think that this type of programing has anything positive to contribute towards space exploration and it doesn’t do it any favors.

        (And sorry for my really big reply, but I had to weight in my 2 cents on the subject!).

        • Well….Ultimately that appears to be the point. The entire project will be a combination of “Survivor”, “Big Brother”, “The Amazing Race”, “Bachlorette/Bachlor”, “Jersey Shore”…It will just take place on Mars and they will be in their little habitats and the entire purpose of the program will be about how the human body reacts to the enviroment. There will be no major science, no real exploration other than within a few hundred feet from the habitat. SpaceX has already said that they are developing a larger version of the Dragon to put 10 tons of equipment on the MARS surface using a retro rocket landing…Moving the equipment in place should not be a problem when you don’t care about disturbing the ground ..because there will not be any real science going on..So I think the best way to think about this is the “Ginie Pig Mission”…So each week we will tune in to see who is sleeping with who ..and who got voted take out the trash …And watch people die….Yes this will draw Billions…Now when NASA comes after another decade…and they have all the Human Data trials the real science will start and…. “No one will watch that crap”!!! This is why I think NASA will be secretly funding this whole thing…

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