Update: The revamped Antares rocket made what appeared to be a nominal flight to orbit Monday evening and sent the Cygnus supply ship on its way to a rendezvous with the International Space Station Sunday. It was a very good evening for Orbital ATK.
Original story: This is a busy week for rocket launches, with crewed launches from China’s Shenzhou 11 mission on Sunday night and Russia’s Soyuz flight to the International Space Station on Wednesday morning. But perhaps the most intriguing launch this week won’t carry people at all.
That’s because, when Orbital ATK’s revamped Antares rocket takes off from the Virginia coast as early as Monday evening, the stakes will be high for both the company and NASA. The last time Orbital’s Antares launched, its flight ended in a spectacular conflagration just above the launch pad. And with NASA’s other U.S.-based supplier of supplies to the space station, SpaceX, currently shutting down as it investigates its own accident, astronauts will need the food and water by Monday.
After Sunday’s launch attempt was scrapped due to a ground support cable issue, Monday’s launch is scheduled for 7:40pm ET tonight (12:40pm UK) from Wallops Island. The Antares rocket will carry the Cygnus spacecraft, loaded with 2,209 kg of food, water, science experiments and hardware, into orbit. After a month at the station, during which astronauts will first unload supplies and then refill Cygnus, the spacecraft will take off with about 1,500 kg of waste and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
A fiery end
An investigation into the accident in October 2014 found that one of the Antares missile’s two engines experienced a turbopump failure. These engines were the subject of some controversy, as the original Antares used modified Russian NK-33 engines, which were built in the 1970s as part of a Russian lunar program. The old engines were refurbished by Aerojet for Orbital ATK, and prior to the launch pad catastrophe, one had actually exploded in a test firing in May 2014. For this reason, Orbital had been looking for a replacement for the NK-33 even before the accident.
For the revamped Antares missile, Orbital ATK has turned to another Russian engine, the RD-181. This engine is slightly more powerful than the NK-33 engine and also has the advantage of having both modern design and manufacturing. This improved performance allowed the Antares rocket to deliver an additional 1,000 kg of payload into orbit.
If Monday’s launch goes according to plan, the Cygnus spacecraft will make its sixth trip to the space station. Three launches have come aboard the Antares rocket, and since the 2014 crash, Orbital has flown two spacecraft on United Launch Alliance’s trusty Atlas V booster. NASA TV coverage of the launch begins at 6:45 p.m. ET.
NASA has remained a steady partner through Orbital’s difficulties. The space agency worked with the company to investigate the accident and helped it transition to the new Antares booster. In addition, last January, when the space agency awarded a second round of cargo contracts to supply the station from 2019 to 2024, Orbital was a winning bidder along with SpaceX and a new provider, Sierra Nevada. Those prizes totaled a whopping $14 billion. With its new booster making its maiden flight tonight, Orbital ATK now has a chance to prove itself worthy of NASA’s trust.
List image by NASA