Antares conducts a flawless maiden launch

by William Graham

Orbital Sciences Corporation have – at the third launch attempt – launched their new Antares rocket’s maiden flight on Sunday. Following two scrubs over the past few days, an issue-free count was followed by a flawless debut mission, as Antares successfully lofted a Cygnus Mass Simulator into orbit.



Liftoff from Launch Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island was orginally set for Thursday.

Location of the umbilicalHowever, at around the T-12 minute mark, flight controllers saw that an umbilical providing data, which connects the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) to the upper stage of the Antares rocket, became disconnected prior to the planned disconnect time.

The team determined the cause was a combination of slight hydraulic movement of the TEL and not enough slack left in the umbilical to allow for any additional or unplanned movement.

Neither issue alone would have caused the umbilical disconnect, however, the combination resulted in the anomaly.

Small adjustments are being made early today to both the hydraulics on the TEL and to the umbilical.

“The good news is that this is a simple adjustment to the external support systems,” said Mr. Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s Executive Vice President and Mission Director for the Antares Test Flight.

“Given that this is a first run for the rocket and the first time use of a new launch facility, the fact that all systems were performing as planned while the team proceeded through the pre-launch checklists is very encouraging.”

*Review live coverage of Attempt 1 by clicking here*


Orbital opted to move their second attempt to Saturday, after the mission management team met to evaluate weather forecasts and optimum crew work schedules to provide two back-to-back opportunities for a launch attempt.

During Saturday’s second attempt, the T-0 was moved twice , due to excessive, high-altitude wind speeds.

While Antares would be able to fly through such conditions, the concern for the range was the area of the debris field in the event of a failure. With weather balloon data showing no improvement throughout the window, a scrub was called.

“Given the winds and wind direction, the debris requirement for the Range and Federal Aviation Administration could not be achieved today,” noted Mr Culbertson.

“This requirement keeps any potential debris from falling outside of a predefined area in the event of an anomaly. Flight requirements dictate that we stop the countdown and pick it up when the conditions improve.”

*Review live coverage of Attempt 2 by clicking here*


The Orbital team prepared for third attempt on Sunday, within a window that opened at 5pm Eastern. Weather conditions were deemed to be more favorable than Saturday, as proved to be the case, with an issue-free count and a flawless mission.

*Click here for live coverage of Attempt 3*

Antares Debut Overview:

The mission, which was designated A-ONE, was the first of three missions planned for this year which will prove Orbital Sciences’ readiness to undertake resupply missions to the International Space Station.

Cygnus mass simulatorThe primary payload was the Cygnus Mass Simulator or Cygnus Payload Simulator; an inert vehicle intended to mimic the mass of a Cygnus spacecraft.

The primary mission of A-ONE was one of risk reduction; to demonstrate that the Antares can perform nominally and place the Cygnus mockup into low Earth orbit. The CMS has a mass of 3,800 kilograms (8,400 lb).

The launch was also used to verify the processing, countdown and launch procedures for Antares, and provide flight testing of both stages, as well as the fairing, and stage and payload separation systems.

It also allowed for Orbital to demonstrate that the Antares can achieve a precise target orbit and deploy its payload.

The mission was similar in purpose to the Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit mission conducted by SpaceX in 2010, however Orbital Sciences did not need to test how the Cygnus spacecraft affects the rocket’s aerodynamic properties as the spacecraft will be encapsulated within a payload fairing.

A-ONE also differed from DSQU in that its payload separated; the SpaceX mission saw the boilerplate spacecraft remain attached to the Falcon 9’s upper stage.

In addition to the mass simulator, A-ONE was also carrying four small satellites as secondary payloads. All four are CubeSats, which were deployed using ISIPod dispensers.

Dove-1 is a three-unit (3U) CubeSat which will be operated by Cosmogia Incorporated. It is a technology demonstrator, intended to test a new CubeSat bus incorporating off-the-shelf hardware. It will be the second of Cosmogia’s Dove satellites to launch; Dove 2 was launched aboard a Soyuz-2-1a on Friday.

PhoneSatPhoneSat is a NASA technology demonstration experiment to examine basing satellites’ onboard systems around off-the-shelf mobile telephone technology.

It is hoped that the use of off-the-shelf technology will reduce the cost of future small satellite missions; the PhoneSat spacecraft are among the cheapest ever built, with a budget of $3,500 per satellite for PhoneSat-1.0 spacecraft and $8,000 for PhoneSat-2.0s, excluding launch costs.

Three PhoneSat spacecraft are aboard the A-ONE mission: PhoneSat-1.0a, 1.0b and 2.0a. PhoneSat-1.0 satellites are based around HTC Nexus One phones, while PhoneSat-2.0 satellites use Samsung Nexus-S phones. Each PhoneSat is a single-unit (1U) CubeSat.

The British STRaND satellite, launched by an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in February, is conducting a similar mission, having already demonstrated the use of an Android-based mobile telephone to control the satellite.

Cygnus SpacecraftThe Cygnus spacecraft was developed as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, along with SpaceX’s Dragon. Orbital Sciences were awarded a contract to develop Cygnus in February 2008 as part of the second round of COTS contracts.

Rocketplane Kistler’s K-1 spacecraft was selected in the first round; however this contract was terminated in 2007 after the company failed to meet milestones agreed with NASA. Orbital has since also been awarded a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract for operational missions to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has already completed all of its COTS milestones, while Orbital has four left to complete; one of which is the A-ONE launch, and the other three are expected to be achieved by the Cygnus spacecraft’s maiden flight later this year. That spacecraft arrived at Wallops Island last week in preparation for its launch.

Cygnus constructionThe operational Cygnus spacecraft is based on existing hardware. It consists of a pressurized cargo module produced by Thales Alenia Space, based on the Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLMs), which were transported to the station by Space Shuttle missions carrying cargo for the outpost.

The service module is based on commercial satellite busses produced by Orbital; based around the propulsion system used by the geosynchronous Star-2 bus, which features IHI BT-4 engines, and avionics systems used by the LEOStar bus.

The first Antares launch is the sixty-third orbital launch to be conducted by Orbital Sciences Corporation, whose fleet of expendable launch systems consists of the Pegasus, Taurus and Minotaur families of rockets.

Antares can fly in several configurations, with two or three stages. A numerical designation, similar to that used with Taurus, or the more well-known system used with Delta rockets, is used to denote which variant will be used for a launch. The Antares designation system consists of three digits, identifying the three stages of the rocket.

Castor 30A, via L2The first digit denotes the first stage; only one type is available so this number is a 1 for all current variants. The second indicates the second stage, with a 1 meaning a Castor 30A, a 2 meaning a Castor 30B, and a 3 denoting the presence of a Castor 30XL.

The third digit gives the type of third stage present; a zero meaning there is no third stage, a 1 meaning that a Bipropellant Third Stage (BTS) is being used, and a 2 indicating the use of a Star-48BV.

The BTS upper stage is a hypergolically-fuelled upper stage, derived from the GEOStar-2 satellite bus. It will be powered by three BT-4 engines, produced by IHI Aerospace of Japan, which will burn hydrazine propellant oxidized by dinitrogen tetroxide.

Click here for additional Antares/Cygnus Articles:

The Star-48BV is a new derivative of the Star-48 solid rocket motor, which has been used since 1980 as an upper stage for an array of US rockets, including several members of the Delta family, the Space Shuttle, Atlas E/F and Minotaur IV.

Star 48 on STS-30's Magellan Probe, via L2Star-48s have also been used as kick motors on spacecraft, including the Magellan and New Horizons interplanetary probes.

Most Star-48 motors are spin-stabilized, however the 48BV uses thrust vectoring instead. The Star-48V; the only other Star-48 with vectoring, has been launched twice, first as the fourth stage of the 1995 Conestoga launch, which failed during first stage flight, and the second atop a Minotaur IV+ in 2011.

The Star-48BV is a thrust-vectoring adaptation of the more powerful Star-48B which was used as the third stage of the Delta II, and in the PAM-D and PAM-S upper stages used by the Space Shuttle.

The launch, however, is of an Antares 110, with no upper stage. The 110 is an interim configuration; operational launches will not use the Castor 30A second stage.

Antares First StageThe first stage of the Antares was developed jointly between Orbital Sciences Corporation and KB Yuzhnoye and PO Yuzhmash of Ukraine.

It is based loosely on the first stage of the Zenit carrier rocket. Propulsion is provided by two AJ26-62 engines burning RP-1 propellant in liquid oxygen, which generate 3.3 meganewtons (740,000 pounds) of thrust.

The Castor-30A second stage will deliver an average thrust of 393 kilonewtons (88,300 lbf). Produced by Alliant Techsystems, the Castor 30 series of upper stages are derived from the larger Castor 120, built to provide a commercial equivalent of the Peacekeeper missile’s first stage for civilian applications.

Castor 30A, via L2The Castor 30 is fuelled by a mixture of a hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene compound, TP-H8299, and aluminium. The stage carries 12,800 kilograms (28,300 lb) of propellant.

With a diameter of only 2.36 metres (7 feet and 9 inches), the second stage is encapsulated within the payload fairing along with the spacecraft. The Antares’ fairing is 3.9 metres (12 feet and 10 inches) in diameter – the same as the first stage – and 9.9 metres (32 feet and 6 inches) long.

The fairing is composed of a honeycomb structure, with a carbon composite outer layer. The first stage, second stage and fairing are linked together by an interstage.

AJ-26 at Orbital, with old NK-33 insignia, via L2The AJ26 engines powering the first stage began life as NK-33s, constructed in the 1960s to power the rockets which would have taken Soviet cosmonauts to the Moon.

The engines were rebuilt by Aerojet to optimize their performance for the Antares.

The N1 was the Soviet Union’s answer to America’s Saturn V. Designed by Sergei Korolev’s OKB-1 design bureau, it was a five-stage rocket intended to win the race with the United States to the Moon. The N1 first flew in February 1969 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Soviet N-1In all, four were launched, the last in November 1972. All four launches ended in failure due to first stage engine problems.

The first stage of the N1 as flown was powered by thirty NK-15 engines, using RP-1 propellant and liquid oxygen oxidizer. Eight modified NK-15V engines propelled the second stage. As was typical for Soviet rockets of the era, and upgraded version, the N1F, was planned which would have been introduced after the first few test flights.

One of the planned upgrades was the replacement of the first stage NK-15 engines with more powerful NK-33s. The NK-15 and NK-33 were both produced by Nikolai Kuznetsov’s OKB-275 design bureau.

Following the fourth N1 failure, the Soviet Union abandoned its manned lunar program, focusing instead on space stations in low Earth orbit. Much of the hardware which had been produced was destroyed as the Soviets attempted to suppress all traces of the failed program, however the engines were instead placed into storage and later re-emerged following the collapse of the USSR.

Soyuz BoostersSince the engines were rediscovered, there had been several proposals to use them to upgrade Russia’s Soyuz rocket; with the Soyuz 2-3 design calling for an NK-33 core engine while retaining the RD-108 engines in the boosters, and the proposed Soyuz-3 would have used NK-33s in the core and boosters.

Although neither of these designs was taken forward, a smaller NK-33 powered derivative of the Soyuz has been developed – the Soyuz 2-1v is expected to make its maiden flight later this year from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

The rocket has a single NK-33 powering its core stage, but lacks the four distinctive boosters which have been a feature of the R-7 design since the 1950s.

As a result of their omission the payload capacity of the Soyuz 2-1v is much lower than other Soyuz rockets; it is intended to replace the Kosmos-3M, reducing Russia’s dependence on converted missiles such as the Dnepr and Rokot – while the Soyuz is itself derived from the R-7 missile, it has been produced exclusively as an orbital launch system for decades.

Antares LaunchThe launch window for A-ONE was two hours long, opening at 21:00 UTC (17:00 EDT), and closing at 23:00 UTC (19:00 local).

This was constrained to two hours from the scheduled T-0 at the start of the final countdown; prior to controllers going on station at 12:45 UTC (08:45 EDT), the window extended to midnight UTC (20:00 EDT). However, for the third attempt, the countdown allowed for a lift off at the start of the window.

With the countdown reaching zero, the two AJ26 engines ignited, and two seconds later Antares lifted off, beginning its first ascent towards orbit, maneuvering to a launch azimuth of 107.8 degrees.

The first stage burn lasted three minutes and 50.5 seconds, taking Antares to an altitude of about 107.5 kilometers (67 miles) and accelerating it to a velocity of 4.4 kilometers per second (9,800 mph). Five seconds later the first stage separated.

Antares StagingFollowing staging, the mission entered a coast phase.

The next event was the separation of the payload fairing, 83.8 seconds after stage separation. The interstage between the first and second stages, to which the payload fairing is attached, separated from the second stage five seconds later.

Four seconds after the interstage separates, the second stage ignited, ending 97.8 seconds of unpowered flight. At ignition, the vehicle should be at an altitude of 189 kilometers (117 miles). The solid-fuelled Castor 30A burned for 154.7 seconds, placing the payload into low Earth orbit.

A-ONE was targeting an orbit with a 250 kilometer perigee, a 303 kilometer apogee, and 51.64 degrees of inclination.

The Cygnus Mass Simulator separate from the second stage two minutes after the end of powered flight. At spacecraft separation, Antares was flying over the far south-west Indian Ocean; Orbital Sciences expected separation to 255.2 kilometers (158.6 miles) above the coordinates 23.5 degrees east and 57.1 degrees south, with the rocket travelling at 7.475 kilometers per second (16,700 mph).

Wallops tracking, with Cygnus arriving by plane, via L2During its ascent to orbit, Antares was tracked by NASA’s tracking stations at Wallops Island, Coquina, Bermuda and Antigua.

Wallops Island provided visual tracking during the early stages of flight, as well as radar tracking, command uplink and telemetry downlink. Coquina and Bermuda provided radar tracking, telemetry downlink and command uplink, while Antigua only provided downlink.

The payloads are expected to remain in orbit for around a fortnight, before they decay from their very low Earth orbit and reenter the atmosphere.

The low deployment orbit helps to prevent too much debris being placed into low Earth orbit, and is identical to the orbit which operational Cygnus spacecraft will be placed into – such missions will use their own propulsion to raise themselves from the deployment orbit to the space station’s orbit.

Wallops IslandAntares has become the first liquid-fuelled rocket to launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), which is one of two launch sites co-located on Wallops Island in Virginia, on the Eastern coast of the United States – the other being NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

Launch Pad 0A was used for the  launch. Built in the 1990s for the Conestoga rocket, a planned low-cost all-solid orbital launch system, the first launch from the complex – then part of the Wallops Flight Facility – was the Conestoga’s maiden flight on 23 October 1995. The rocket, carrying METEOR, a recoverable microgravity research satellite, was destroyed by range safety during first stage flight due to a guidance problem.

After its maiden flight failed, the Conestoga was abandoned, and Pad 0A fell into disuse. When the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport was founded in 1997, Pad 0A was transferred to it and a second launch pad, 0B, was constructed nearby becoming operational in 1999. Despite this, it was not until 2006 a launch would take place from MARS.

On 16 December 2006, Orbital Sciences launched a Minotaur I from Pad 0B, carrying TacSat-2 for the US Air Force. Since then, several more Minotaur I rockets have launched from Pad 0B, carrying NFIRE in April 2007, TacSat-3 in May 2009 and ORS-1 in June 2011.

ATK X-1In addition, Alliant Techsystems’ ALV X-1 mission was launched from 0B in August 2008 on a suborbital mission with NASA’s HyBOLT and Soarex-6 payloads, however that launch failed – the rocket was destroyed by range safety after the vehicle went off course.

In terms of launches, Wallops Flight Facility, which is also located on Wallops Island, is mostly used for sounding rockets and is the base for NASA’s Sounding Rockets Program Office. It was most recently used on 30 January, when a Terrier-Improved Orion flew a test mission for NASA. The next scheduled launch is a Black Brant XII on 4 June.

Although it is associated with sounding rockets, over the years a few orbital launches have been made from the Wallops Flight Facility.

SCOUT X-1The first attempt came on 4 December 1960, with a Scout X-1 carrying NASA’s S-56 spacecraft – part of the Explorer program, however the launch failed. The first successful launch occurred on 16 February 1961, with another Scout X-1 carrying S-56A, a replacement for the failed satellite, which was placed into orbit as Explorer 9.

Scout launches were initially made from Launch Area 3; however in 1964 they switched to an upgraded pad at Area 3A. In total, 40 Scout launches were made from LA-3, however not all of them were orbital launch attempts.

The last orbital Scout launch from Wallops occurred on 13 December 1985 when a Scout G-1 orbited a pair of Inflatable Target Vehicles, USA-13 and 14, for the US Air Force. In the second half of the 1990s, Orbital Sciences launched six Pegasus-XL rockets from its L1011 Stargazer aircraft flying out of Wallops.

Antares on the pad, via L2After Orbital Sciences announced that Antares would launch from MARS, work to convert pad 0A began. The original Conestoga pad was demolished in 2008, and the complex completely rebuilt. A hangar was constructed nearby to accommodate the horizontal integration of the Antares, in contrast to the Conestoga which was assembled on the pad.

The launch was the eighteenth orbital launch attempt of 2013, including a suspected Iranian launch failure in February, and the fifth from the United States. The next scheduled American launch is of an Atlas V on 15 May, carrying the a GPS navigation satellite.

The next Antares launch is expected to launch the first functional Cygnus spacecraft, on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

Cygnus approaching the ISS via L2One or two more Antares launches are planned in 2013; one in September and potentially one in December, on Commercial Resupply Services missions to deliver cargo to the ISS.

In addition to Antares, Orbital Sciences Corporation will also launch a Pegasus-XL and two Minotaurs by the end of the year; the Pegasus will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base around 29 May, with NASA’s IRIS satellite.

The first of the two Minotaurs on the launch schedule is currently planned for 12 August from pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, and will be the maiden flight of the Minotaur V; a five-stage derivative of the Minotaur IV; carrying the LADEE spacecraft to the Moon.

The second launch will use a Minotaur I, also from pad 0B at MARS, to orbit the ORS-3 mission for the US Air Force Operationally Responsive Space Office, and a number of CubeSats.

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

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