When Orbital Sciences Corporation launched their Cygnus Orb-3 ISS resupply mission for NASA, nobody would have thought the flight would end in a spectacular explosion, but that’s exactly what happened, and in the time since Orbital has dusted the dirt off their shoes and implemented a contingency plan to overcome the setback quickly in order to fulfill their $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Signed in December 2008, the agreement requires the Dulles, Va.-based company to stage eight dedicated Cygnus flights to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2016 to deliver a total of 44,000 pounds of payloads and other items for NASA (this will now be accomplished in seven flights instead—keep reading).
The loss of Orb-3 is blamed on a turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines the Antares employed, which will keep Orbital’s rocket grounded until a new engine is implemented, but that doesn’t mean Orbital is not still obligated to fulfill their contract with NASA. With that said, this week the company announced a new agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to employ their proven Atlas-V 401 rocket to launch Cygnus on Orb-4 in 2015 and, if needed, Orb-5 in 2016 while Orbital develops a new main propulsion system for their Antares rocket, which is expected to fly again starting in the first quarter of 2016.
“Orbital is pleased to partner with ULA for these important cargo missions to the ISS,” said Frank Culbertson, Orbital executive vice president and general manager of its Advanced Programs Group. “ULA’s ability to integrate and launch missions on relatively short notice demonstrates ULA’s manifest flexibility and responsiveness to customer launch needs.”
Orbital’s “go-forward” plan to get back on track with their NASA CRS commitment will rely on ULA launching Cygnus atop their Atlas-V 401 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex-41 in Florida. The current plan calls for ULA to fly Cygnus Orb-4 in the fourth quarter of 2015, with an option for a second Atlas-V launch (Orb-5) in early 2016 if Orbital’s new Antares is not ready.
“We could not be more honored that Orbital selected ULA to launch its Cygnus spacecraft,” added Jim Sponnick, vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs for ULA. “This mission was awarded in a highly competitive environment, and we look forward to continuing ULA’s long history of providing reliable, cost-effective launch services for customers.”
ULA’s Atlas-V rockets are arguably the most reliable operational launch vehicles in active service today. To date, they have flown a total of 50 missions between August 2002 and October 2014, with 49 full successes and only one partial failure. The Atlas-V 401 configuration, which flies without solid boosters, can deliver up to 21,600 pounds (9,800 kg) to low-Earth orbit (LEO), and when compared to Orbital’s Antares rocket the Atlas 401’s greater lift capacity (propulsive yield of 860,000 pounds) will allow Cygnus to carry nearly 35 percent more cargo to the ISS than previously planned for CRS missions in 2015.
To date, the Atlas-V, in its numerous variants, has delivered 56 primary payloads into space. These have included several commercial communications satellites and a range of military payloads, including members of the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS), the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF), geostationary-orbiting elements of the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), and a pair of heavyweight Multi-User Objective System (MUOS) communications satellites. Additionally, the Atlas has delivered a number of classified payloads on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and has launched the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV)-3 mini-shuttle (also known as the “X-37B”) on three occasions in April 2010, March 2011, and December 2012. The most recent OTV-3 mission ended in October, with a successful landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, after 675 days aloft.
Although the Atlas V’s pedigree has been dominated by military payloads, it has also delivered a number of important missions of exploration into the heavens. These include the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in August 2005, the Pluto-bound New Horizons in January 2006, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) in June 2009, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in February 2010, the Jupiter-headed Juno orbiter in August 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and Curiosity rover in November 2011, the Van Allen Probes in August 2012, and, most recently, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft in November 2013.
As for Orbital’s plans to upgrade their Antares, the company released the following statement:
“The company has confirmed its ability to accelerate the introduction of a new main propulsion system for the Antares rocket and has scheduled three additional CRS launches in the first, second and fourth quarters of 2016 using the upgraded vehicle. The greater payload performance of the upgraded Antares will permit Cygnus spacecraft on each of these missions to deliver over 20% more cargo than in prior plans. With necessary supplier contracts now in place, the first new propulsion systems are expected to arrive at the Antares final assembly facility at Wallops Island, Virginia in mid-2015 to begin vehicle integration and testing.”
Orbital has yet to say exactly who will supply Antares with a new main propulsion system, or what engine it will be.
The combination of using the more powerful Atlas-V 401 (35 percent more cargo) and upgraded Antares in 2016 (20 percent more cargo for three flights: Orb 5, Orb-6, and Orb-7) eliminates the need for an eighth ISS CRS flight under Orbital’s CRS contract with NASA, which keeps the company on schedule and prevents any material adverse financial impacts in 2015 (or future years) as Orbital carries out their $1.9 billion CRS commitment and Antares propulsion upgrade programs.
Orbital’s launch site itself at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which suffered quite a bit of damage when Antares exploded, will be used again to launch Antares and Cygnus to the ISS, and should be ready to do so at the start of 2016. A number of support buildings in the immediate area of the launch site suffered broken windows and imploded doors, with a sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad and buildings nearest the pad having suffered the most severe damage. Damage to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods was extensive, two lightning rods were completely leveled in the explosion, and the area was littered with debris.
The effects of the explosion were largely contained within the southern third of Wallops Island, in the area immediately adjacent to the pad, and no obvious signs of water pollution (such as oil sheens) or impacts to fish and wildlife resources have been observed. MARS has since has assessed the clean-up, repair, and reconstruction work necessary to return the Wallops launch complex to operational status, and current plans call for repairs to be substantially completed by the fall of 2015, with re-certification taking place before the end of 2015.
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