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Antares’ Return-to-Flight Edges Closer

Posted: 26 July 2016, 3:30 p.m. EDT
An Antares rocket lifts off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in September 2013 with a Cygnus
cargo capsule aboard. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

by Ben Iannotta, Aerospace America editor-in-chief

Orbital ATK says it is on schedule to launch its next Antares rocket by the end of August, nearly two years after a launch explosion in Virginia grounded the Antares rockets.

“Everything is tracking to that [date] right now,” said Orbital ATK’s John Steinmeyer, director of business development, speaking July 26 at AIAA Propulsion and Energy 2016 in Salt Lake City.

The Antares will launch a Cygnus cargo capsule toward the international space station, just as the doomed rocket was attempting to do in October 2014 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

This time, the rocket will be powered by two Russian-built RD-181 engines imported in 2015. The RD-181’s are lower-thrust, single-combustion-chamber versions of the Energomash RD-180s.

After the explosion, a NASA review team was unable to pinpoint a precise cause but said it found vulnerabilities and flaws in the doomed vehicle’s Aerojet AJ26 engines, which were refurbished from Russian-built NK-33 engines.

Orbital ATK wanted to return to flight sooner, but a ground test on one of the RD-181 flight engines was delayed from March until June.

“Our NASA customer requested some additional requirements for our hot fire test,” Steinmeyer explained.

In 2012, Orbital ATK began discussions with Energomash, the Russian builder of the RD-181s, about the possibility of acquiring the engines, Steinmeyer said. The agreement reached in December 2014 provides for 22 engines.

“There weren’t too many people doing deals with Russians during this time frame, so that worked to our advantage,” Steinmeyer said.

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