Flight of the Antares – Orbital closing in on long-awaited debut

by Chris Bergin

The Antares launch vehicle will soon make its debut flight, ahead of an important year for Orbital’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract requirements. The test flight of the new launch vehicle will pave the way for a demo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in May, involving the first use of the Cygnus spacecraft.


The Antares – formerly known as Taurus II – is the first cryogenically powered launch vehicle produced by Orbital Sciences, as well as its largest rocket to date.

AJ26 on Antares - L2 ImageThe main engine for the first stage of the Antares is the Aerojet produced AJ-26.

These engines are a rebuilt version of Soviet NK-33, originally intended for the massive N-1 launch vehicle that was in direct competition with NASA’s Saturn V.

Aerojet later bought the engines – which had never been used – and added modern electronics and other performance enhancements.

Orbital, Aerojet and NASA recently completed a successful hot fire test of an Antares AJ26 engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

The full-duration test was the eleventh AJ26 engine tested at the NASA facility, which provided acceptable results that will allow for the hardware to be shipped to the Wallops launch site in Virgina for integration with the Antares rocket.

ATK Castor 30 - L2 ImageThe second stage of the Antares comes from another industry veteran, Alliant Techsystems (ATK). The vehicle 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 was scheduled to spread its wings in 2012. However, delays to Antares’ schedule were caused by problems related to the completion of construction work on the launch pad’s propellant handling and pressurization systems. However, the vehicle’s path to launch now appears to be much clearer.

Launch Preps:

With Antares making its first trip to the launch pad at Wallops at the end of last year, fit checks and system validation testing proceeded without any showstoppers.

Antares at the pad - L2 imageThis allowed for the new vehicle to receive its lifeblood for the first time, as engineers conducted wet dress rehearsals – known as cold flow testing – the last of which is expected to take place in the coming days.

This will allow for February’s key milestone of the hot fire test, with the Antares firing its AJ26s whilst held down at the launch pad. Engineers will review the results of the test over the weeks that follow, with a goal of approving Antares to make its first launch into space.

Expected in March or early April, this test flight mission will task Antares with lofting a Cygnus mass simulator payload that will be heavily instrumented to gather data on the launch environment aboard Antares.

In addition, four small “pico satellites” will be deployed from two dispensers that will be integrated with the mass simulator.

Cygnus Providing no major issues were found with the test launch, Orbital will then move on to their final requirement under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract – a full demo mission.

This mission – known as ORB-D – involves an Antares launch carrying a fully operational Cygnus spacecraft that will rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station (ISS) to demonstrate the full capabilities of the cargo resupply system. This mission is similar to SpaceX’s COTS 2+ mission with their Falcon 9 and Dragon pairing.

The Cygnus spacecraft 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.

Orbital image of CygnusThales 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.

While Orbital’s established history in the space flight arena is well known, the Italian-based company are also a major player, famous for hardware such as the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) Cargo Carrier, built for the European Space Agency (ESA).

Thales Alenia Space was also a key player in the Columbus laboratory and prime contractor for Node 2, Node 3 and the Cupola – all now on orbit with the ISS.

Orbital note they are working with NASA’s ISS program to identify an available time window for Cygnus to arrive at the ISS, based on their busy Visiting Vehicles schedule. However, source information (L2) cites a May 3 NET (No Earlier Than) placeholder for this launch.

Debut ISS Mission:

Per L2 mission overview documentation, Antares will launch Cygnus into orbit for five to six days of demos during the period of far field phasing. Future missions will only require a standard three days prior to arriving at the ISS.

Screenshot from exclusive L2 video sitting in on a Cygnus ISS simThe Cygnus vehicle will be controlled by Orbital at MCC-Dulles, using an ops team that has experience operating GEO satellites, boosted by an increasing number of flight controllers from NASA MOD, who will bring their ISS experience to the table. Numerous dress rehearsals have taken place at the MCC, as seen in an exclusive video provided to L2.

There will be two key operational phases for the opening part of the mission, the Integrated Launch Operations Phase (ILOPS), for ascent and insertion, handing over to the Phasing Operations Phase (POPS), for the pursuit of the ISS.

Cygnus approaching KOS - image via L2For Cygnus to safely arrive in the ISS’ back yard, extra caution is required when entering the ISS’ “Keep Out Sphere (KOS)”.

The techniques required for this key stage of approaching the ISS were seen via Dragon’s only hiccup during its COTS 2+ arrival related to the sensors used to allow the spacecraft to “see” the ISS and calculate the distance and closure rates. This system is called the Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR).

Due to stray light and reflections coming off the ISS, the SpaceX team had to recalibrate – successfully – one of the beams to narrow its field of view. The problem did not reoccur during Dragon’s CRS-1 mission.

TriDAR on ShuttleCygnus will use the TriDAR vision system – designed by Canadian company Neptec, with the support of NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. This system provides real-time visual guidance for navigation, rendezvous and docking procedures.

The system has proved its worth by flying on three shuttle missions, previously with Discovery on STS-128 and STS-131, prior to the trip with Atlantis on her – and the Shuttle fleet’s – final mission, STS-135.

Its performance with Atlantis during rendezvous was impressive, with the TriDAR-created video of the acquisition of the ISS showing how the system tracked the orbital outpost from 34km out, all the way through to Atlantis’ docking.

Neptec image of flyaround - via L2Arguably more impressive was the footage from the undocking and half lap flyaround of the Station, with TriDAR operated in imaging mode.

Given real-time tracking of undock and flyaround had already been previously performed during STS-131, the Neptec TriDAR team took the unique opportunity to produce 3D and thermal movies of the last Shuttle based ISS flyaround operation.

Neptec noted that the 3D Triangulation and LIDAR Laser Range images were collected simultaneously, utilizing a triangulation subsystem based on OBSS (Orbiter Boom Sensor System) LCS (Laser Camera System) technology.

CUCU on ISS - via L2The ISS and Cygnus – as with all visiting vehicles, including Dragon – also need to show they have a strong communication link, required not least for the ability to manually abort the approach – or at least retreat – in the event of problems. This phase of the mission is called the Joint Operations Phase (JOPS).

This critical approach period is called Proximity Ops, with Cygnus using the JEM PROX system for direct communications with ISS, effectively resulting in the use of the same system Japan’s HTV uses for arriving at the ISS, as much as there will be a number of different settings employed for Cygnus’ arrival.

As with Dragon, Cygnus will stalk the ISS, slowly creeping up to its target via a large series of demos to test its systems. As the Orbital spacecraft sneaks up the R-bar, under the ISS, it will enter the KOS.

Dragon sim for ISS approach - via L2Once inside the KOS, Cygnus will demonstrate that it can hold and retreat, prior to receiving the go – via polling – to proceed.

With its TriDAR locked on – the tenth demo of the approach at this point – a final go will be given for Cygnus to approach to the capture point.

The ISS’ Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) will then reach out and grapple Cygnus, prior to being berthed on the Station.

Once berthed, the ISS crew will begin vestibule ops and Cygnus activation via ISS power jumpers on rendezvous day, documented as a nine hour procedure. Hatch opening and ingress will occur on the following mission day.

Cygnus’ hatch is very similar to a standard US segment hatch, albeit slightly smaller, making it a similar sight to the ISS crewmembers. A ventilation duct will be hooked up, and the spacecraft cleared of any dust prior to becoming safe to ingress without eye protection and masks.

Inside CygnusCygnus currently supports a berthed duration of up to 30 days, with this period of the mission classed as the Berthed Operations Phase (BOPS).

It is not yet known what cargo Cygnus will be manifested with for this demo mission, although a basic sequence for cargo ops has already been written.

This involves the crew removing the “top layers” on PORT and STBD pallets to make room in PCM. They will then remove components of the Secondary Structure as required, ahead of emptying the FWD and AFT pallets to gain access to the Standoff pallets, which they will empty and repack.

The reverse sequence will be employed until the vehicle has been repacked, although all the return cargo won’t be classed as downmass, because – unlike Dragon – Cygnus won’t be returning to the ground or water. Instead, it’ll be sent on a path to a destructive re-entry.

Cygnus EOMThe final phase of the mission – a reverse of the berthing procedures – is called the Descent & Reentry Operations Phase (DROPS), as Cygnus ends its life in a disposal corridor during entry, hopefully with a smile on its face, following a successful demonstration that paved the way for its siblings to each take a turn in providing full CRS operations.

The deal to carry out ISS resupply flights – under the $1.9 billion CRS contract – encompasses eight missions through to 2015 carrying approximately 20,000 kg of cargo to the ISS.

It is currently expected Cygnus will make its first supply run proper (Orbital’s CRS-1) in the third quarter of 2013, again pending viable slots in NASA’s busy VV schedule.

(Images: via L2’s Antares and Cygnus Section – containing presentations, videos, images, interactive high level updates and more, with additional images via Orbital).

(Click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/ – to view how you can support NSF and access the best space flight content on the entire internet).

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