ULA internal review aiming to return Atlas V to flight status

by Chris Bergin

The United Launch Alliance/Lockheed Martin will conduct an internal review of their Atlas V launch vehicle on Thursday, with a view to giving a green light for the upcoming STP-1 mission.

While preparations have been proceeding for the March 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, the Atlas V vehicle has been grounded by the recent failure of Sea Launch’s Zenit 3SL, due to commonality between the two vehicle’s engines.

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The Atlas V uses a RD-180 core stage engine, while the Zenit 3SL utilizes the RD-171, which share commonality via their manufacturer in Russia, NPO Energomash.

Following the failure of the Zenit 3SL, which was attempting to launch the NSS-8 satellite on January 30, a multi-national investigation has been taking place. Now that the RD-171 has been cleared from the fault tree, ULA managers are meeting to read over the data that will allow Atlas V to launch, without fears of a problem with their RD-180.

While the Sea Launch failure is still being investigated, it is understood that the fault originates in a problem with the LOX tank – and is now the focus of their investigation – which has no commonality with the Atlas V.

With Sea Launch workers now back home, following the arrival of the Sea Launch Commander in California on Friday, the damaged Odyssey Launch Platform will be the next to arrival back in Long Beach. It is set to arrival either on Thursday or Friday, before having its damage evaluated for subsequent repairs, with the biggest issue being the replacement of the unique flame deflector that was destroyed during the explosion.

The ULA launch from Cape Canaveral is a six satellite mission by the Atlas V. The US Air Force’s Space Test Program-1 (STP-1) will include MidSTAR 1, FalconSat 3, STPSat 1, CFESat, Astro (Autonomous Space Transfer and Robotic Orbiter) and NextSat. With a two on four payload configuration, the launch will also debut ESPA ring payload adaptor.

The launch has been delayed since its initial launch date back in October, but fears that Atlas could suffer up an additional delay of many months following the Sea Launch failure are expected to be dismissed by this internal review.

ULA/Atlas can carry out such a review, without the need to wait for the full findings of the Russian commission that was set up following the Sea Launch failure, due to their single concern being related to the engine.

They have been receiving post-failure information from NPO Energomash clearing the engine since last week and now may be in a position to confirm they are satisfied they can proceed with their launch without concerns over the RD-180. The review will be used to confirm they can press ahead with the STP-1 mission.

ULA are in launch action on Thursday, with the Boeing Delta II launch from Cape Canaveral of NASA’s THEMIS mission – live coverage will be available on this site.


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