Rocket Launch Companies Orbital And SpaceX Ready For Lift-Off
October 2, 2012

Rocket Launch Companies Orbital And SpaceX Ready For Lift-Off

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Two commercial space resupply companies announced this week they are now ready to launch their rockets into space. Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) and Space Explorations Technologies (SpaceX) both have multi-year contracts with NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

On Monday Orbital moved its Antares rocket to the launch pad at NASA´s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia for the first time as it prepares for launch; It will loft the Cygnus resupply vessel to space, allowing the spacecraft to journey to the ISS, fulfilling a void in American-based cargo missions after the retirement of NASA´s Space Shuttle program.

Following a four-year process, including design, development, testing and inspections, Orbital recently received approval to operate on the launch pad from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), the company that manages the Wallops Facility. MARS is overseen by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA).

Both Orbital and SpaceX have secured contracts totaling $3.5 billion under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. The contract orders 8 flights from Orbital valued at $1.9 billion, and 12 flights from SpaceX worth about $1.6 billion.

SpaceX announced it is days away from launching its Falcon 9 and Dragon combination, following already-successful test flights. Orbital's Antares rocket is expected to gain a lot of ground following the success of its first test flight, expected before the end of the year, followed in 2013 with a launch carrying Cygnus to the ISS.

Antares is the first cryogenically-powered launch vehicle produced by Orbital, as well as the company´s largest. Unlike SpaceX, which has relied on internal design and production of components, Orbital went with experienced contractors for major elements of its launch vehicle design.

The main engine for the first stage of the Antares is the Aerojet AJ-26. Engines are rebuilt versions of the Soviet NK-33. Aerojet bought those engines, which were never utilized by the Russian space agency, and added modern electronics and performance enhancements. Originally produced for the Kistler K-1 launch vehicle, the engines were sold to Aerojet after the Kistler/COTS agreement fell apart.

Antares´ tanking was contracted to the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau from the Ukraine, a company that has extensive knowledge in producing kerosene rocket bodies, such as for the Zenit launch vehicle.

Orbital also upgraded from a single NK-33 engine. It scrapped the strap-on solid boosters and added a second engine to the core during final design.

Alliant Techsystems (ATK) designed the second stage, which utilizes a solid upper stage called the Castor 30, which is a derivative of the Athena and Taurus I first stage Castor 120, which is in turn a derivative of the Peacekeeper ICBM first stage.

Antares will have two optional third stages: the Hydrazine Propulsion System (HAPS) — a derivative of the Orbital STAR bus designed to inject a payload to a designated orbit with more precision, and the Star 48 third stage, which can be utilized for orbits requiring higher energy. Although, neither stage is currently slated on the vehicle´s manifest.

Rocket development has been maintained very well. However, there have been schedule delays along the way--the main delay relating to the MARS facility itself. Construction of the launch pad´s propellant handling and pressurization systems took longer than scheduled.

David W. Thompson, president and CEO of Orbital, said on Monday during a media event: “MARS has completed construction and testing operations on its launch complex at Wallops Island, the first all-new large-scale liquid-fuel launch site to be built in the U.S. in decades“¦Accordingly, our pad operations are commencing immediately in preparation for an important series of ground and flight tests of our Antares medium-class launch vehicle over the next few months. In fact, earlier today, an Antares first stage test article was transported to the pad from its final assembly building about a mile away, marking the beginning of full pad operations.”

Orbital has a host of scheduled tests and demonstrations over the next several months for Antares, including an on-pad hot-fire test of its first stage engines, an inaugural test flight of the fully functional rocket, and a demonstration mission to the ISS, showing off the cargo delivery capabilities of its largest rocket to date. Once all milestones have been met, Orbital will be able to begin fulfilling its contract commitment to NASA.

Further south at Cape Canaveral, SpaceX is busy preparing its Falcon 9 rocket, scheduled to make its first contracted commercial cargo trip to the ISS on Sunday. During a successful test this weekend, Falcon 9 fired its nine Dragon Merlin engines on Saturday. The SpaceX team went through the entire launch process as if it were a normal launch, yet the Falcon 9 remained secured to the ground while its engines fired up full power for two seconds before being shut down.

SpaceX is now reviewing all test data from this past weekend´s test, and barring any unforeseen malfunctions or technical issues, the company will launch Sunday October 7 at 8:35 p.m. If there should be a delay, SpaceX has backup launch times set for the following Monday or Tuesday.