Space industry giants Orbital upbeat ahead of Antares debut

by Chris Bergin

Orbital Science Corporation held an investor conference this week, overviewing the results of their Fourth Quarter performance in 2011, at the same time as providing an interesting insight into the near-term plans for what is one of the most established companies in the space industry. The overview covered their entire space operations, including information on the debut of their new launch vehicle, Antares.

Orbital’s Lofty Goals Based On Experience:

With the US space industry finding itself involved in NASA transition by default, some doubts have been aired – usually from behind the curtain – on how well the commercial sector will perform in their role of taking over Low Earth Orbit (LEO), as NASA work on returning to deep space exploration.

Most of the concern – some of it unfairly – has been aimed at the “new boys on the block”, such as SpaceX, tied in with central funding concerns for the commercial fleet, not least from the standpoint of returning the United States’ domestic crew launch capability after the untimely retirement of the Space Shuttle.

Orbital, however, are anything but new boys in the space industry, with a deep history of not just launching payloads, but building them too. The company have been in the developer and manufacturer of small and medium-class Space Systems for the past three decades, serving customers in Commercial, National Security and Civil Government Markets.
In total, this has involved over 1,000 satellites and launch vehicles built – or on contract – for customers, a number collated from 205 satellites and space systems, 170 space and strategic launch vehicles and 640 target vehicles and sounding rockets.

With 3,700 employees working in 1.7 Million Square Feet of State-of-the-Art Facilities, Orbital are currently working through a contract backlog of nearly $5.3 billion.

In 2012 alone, Orbital expect to create revenues of around $1.5 billion.

Antares Set To Rise:

This year will also mark the debut of a new launch vehicle, as the recently renamed Antares prepares for launches out of the newly built pad complex at Wallops Island.

The vehicle’s main engine is the Aerojet produced AJ-26 – a rebuilt version of Soviet NK-33, originally intended for the massive N-1 launch vehicle. The tanking for the Antares was contracted to the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau from the Ukraine. Yuzhnoye has extensive knowledge in producing kerosene rocket bodies as the producer of the Zenit launch vehicle.

Orbital originally conceived of a core with a single NK-33 derived engine combined with strap-on solid boosters. However a second engine was ultimately added to the core and the boosters were removed from the final design. Instead, the vehicle utilizes an ATK 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.

The first two initial flights will use the Castor 30A, while an upgraded version will be utilized for the next two flights called the Castor 30B.

Orbital originally intended at this point to switch to a liquid upper stage called the HESS utilizing the Russian RD-0124. However, the company later decided to go with a stretch of the original upper stage called the Castor 30XL. The Castor 30XL will power the last six flights scheduled right now for the Antares, and will launch extra cargo on a larger Cygnus Spacecraft.

Two optional third stages are also available for Antares, namely the Hydrazine Propulsion System (HAPS) – a derivative of the Orbital STAR bus designed to inject a payload to a designated orbit with more precision, while the Star 48 third stage can be utilized for orbits requiring higher energy. Neither stage is current slated on the vehicle’s manifest.

Antares will utilize a three digit designation. The first digit will always be a one and refer to the kerosene core. The second stage will be labeled 1 for the Castor 30A, 2 for B, and 3 for XL. The last digit refers to the upper stage being utilized, with a 1 being the designation for the HAPS stage and 2 for the Star 48 and 0 for no upper stage.

During the 2011 Q4 meeting, Orbital noted the impact the vehicle’s addition had on the balance books, not least due to the contract arrangements with NASA.

“Revenues actually increased five percent on a segment basis, but greater production activity on the first two Antares rockets – which falls under the COTS shared R&D program with NASA and which do not generate consolidated revenue – caused our intersegment eliminations to increase substantially in the fourth quarter,” noted David Thompson – Orbital Sciences Corp – Chairman, CEO.

Mr Thompson added that the company carried out seven space missions, consisting of two satellite and space payload deployments and five rocket launches, during the reporting period – all of these were successful. Orbital also delivered five additional rockets for future launches in the quarter.

These figures, when added into the whole of 2011, resulted in 27 space missions for Orbital, all but one of which were successful.

The missions included 18 rocket launches, five satellite deployments and four space payload missions. The company also completed and delivered 17 additional systems for future uses during the past year. 

Looking ahead to the first quarter, Mr Thompson noted plans to conduct two space missions and to deliver five systems for future launches by the end of March. However, the debut of Antares will be later in the year, per recent slips on the manifest, related to issues at the new launch complex.

“Unfortunately the first flight of our new Antares medium capacity launch vehicle, the rocket we formerly referred to as Taurus II, was delayed again in the quarter. This was caused by problems of completing construction work on the launch pad’s propellant handling and pressurization systems.

“Instead of taking place in late February or early March as I had anticipated when reporting to you last October, now appears that the initial Antares launch will be in late June or early July.”

Despite the slip to Antares’ opening flights, Orbital plans to conduct up to 24 major space missions this year – consisting of between 14 and 16 launch vehicle flights and seven or eight satellite launches and deployments.
These totals are expected to include the first three launches of the new Antares rocket, as well as two launches of the Pegasus space launch vehicle and two flights of the Orbital boost vehicle Interceptor rocket and up to nine target vehicle launches.

In addition, Orbital plan to deliver nine satellites consisting of five commercial communication spacecraft, two scientific spacecraft and two cargo spacecraft this year – subject to launch vehicle availability.

Expanding on the slip to the right for Antares’ schedule, Mr Thompson added the first major milestone – a hot firing of the Antares first stage – should occur in late May, paving the way for the vehicle’s test flight just a month or so later.

“As I noted earlier, delays caused by the need to redesign and replace various ground systems at our Wallops Island, Virginia launch pad, have pushed (the schedule) out by another couple of months.

“We now expect to carry out the important hold down hot firing of the Antares first stage in late May and assuming it goes smoothly, the rocket’s first launch in late June or early July.

This translates into being ready for the COTS demonstration mission – which would be launched on the second Antares flight – in the late summer and first operational CRS flight to the International Space Station on the third Antares launch at the end of the year.”

The CEO did stress that the above milestones are subject to the tests and flights proceeding without major incidents – something which threatens all launch vehicles.

Orbital are no strangers to failure, suffering two successive loses via the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) program, losing the spacecraft due to a fairing separation failures in 2009 – with the first spacecraft, and in March with the Glory failure.

However, the Antares launch vehicle itself is – according to Mr Thompson – on track in its preparation for launch, with only the launch complex issues requiring additional work.

“I want to stress that this sequence of events assumes that all major activities proceed smoothly without major technical problems which if they were to occur would likely delay subsequent milestones from these targeted dates. Most of the Antares delays we encountered over the past year at the Virginia Spaceport on Wallops Island relate to the launch pad itself and the adjacent propellant and pressurization equipment.

“The net effect of these problems has been to push out our schedule for on pad stage testing and the first launch by some 8 to 9 months over the past year. To more effectively address these challenges Orbital took over day to day management of work on the space port’s launch pad and its related propellant equipment last fall, assigning a 20 person contingent to direct and oversee the remaining activities through the first Antares launch later this year.

“At this point, we project that construction will be complete in early March and certification and turnover of the pad will occur in late April which would support the May hot fire test and the late June or early July first launch schedule.

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“Despite the launch pad delays, the Antares rocket itself progressed well over the last three or four months. At the end of December, we had reached the 98 percent complete point in the rocket’s development cost with less than $10 million of expenditures remaining to finish the testing over the next several months. 

“In the related production program we now have four Antares vehicles at our Wallops integration site and four flight ready rocket engines that have been through acceptance testing and checked out successfully. Most of the other rocket hardware needed for the three Antares launches planned for this year is also at Wallops Island or ready to ship there when needed.”


Antares will be tasked with launching Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft en route to the ISS, delivering crew supplies, scientific experiments and equipment, spares parts and other essential cargo under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

The Cygnus vehicle consists of an advanced Service Module and a Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM). The Service Module incorporates avionics, power and propulsion systems from Orbital’s flight-proven LEOStar and GEOStar satellite product lines.

Thales Alenia Space are providing Orbital with the pressurized modules for cargo missions to the ISS. The first PCM was followed by three more units in “standard” configuration, capable of transporting up to 2,000 kg of cargo each, along with five “enhanced” configuration units to follow, boosting payload capacity to 2,700 kg.

Mr Thompson noted that the spacecraft is making good progress along its milestones, with the first two Cygnus’ already fully assembled, along with three more in the opening stages of production.

“With respect to the Cygnus cargo spacecraft that would be launched on Antares, we’re also in pretty good shape. Cygnus vehicle number one which will be used for the COTS demonstration mission in the late summer is fully assembled and is currently in thermal vacuum testing at our Dulles,Virginia, satellite manufacturing facility with its delivery to Wallops Island planned for June,” noted the CEO.

“Cygnus vehicle number two which will be used for the first operational CRS mission late this year is also fully assembled and recently completed electromagnetic compatibility testing in our space environment facility. Its delivery to Wallops is expected in October. And the Cygnus vehicles three, four and five are in earlier stages of production for CRS flights in 2013 and early 2014.”

Cygnus, along with SpaceX’s Dragon, will return part of the upmass capability lost since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, working alongside Japan’s HTV, Europe’s ATV and Russian Progress resupply missions.

(Images: Orbital, L2)

(NSF and L2 are providing full transition level coverage, available no where else on the internet, from Orion and SLS to ISS and COTS/CRS/CCDEV, to European and Russian vehicles. 

(Click here: – to view how you can access L2)

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