Return to Wallops: New Antares set for late 2015 hot fire
Repairs to the Antares launch facility at Wallops Flight Facility are expected to be completed within 12 months, in time for the return of the Orbital rocket – in her upgraded propulsion configuration – for a hot fire test at the end of 2015. The dramatic failure of the CRS-3/OrB-3 Antares launch resulted in damage to Pad-0A, although large areas of the complex were spared from the resulting explosion.
Antares at Wallops:
Orbital has a long history of launches from the Virginia complex. For Antares, a new pad and Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) was required, expanding the company’s presence at Wallops.
Virginia Space, NASA, and Orbital Sciences worked together over six years to build a new launch facility known as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) through a $160 million investment, with the Commonwealth of Virginia investing $90M, NASA investing $60M and Orbital investing $10M.
Construction of the MARS facility wasn’t without its teething problems, notably the completion of construction work on the launch pad’s propellant handling and pressurization systems.
However, it then enjoyed four successful launches of the Antares – three of which involved the Cygnus spacecraft being lofted to the International Space Station (ISS).
The CRS-3/OrB-3 Cygnus was to be the latest mission, as Antares rocketed off the pad once again at the end of October.
The launch failed around T+14 seconds, as a “probable turbopump-related failure” in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 main engines resulted in the rocket falling back to the ground.
The resulting explosion was dramatic, although – somewhat amazingly – the facility avoided major damage, despite the rocket impacting very close to the pad from where she had departed.
“The Spaceport was spared severe damage with the Antares rocket returning to earth and impacting just to the north of the launch mount,” noted a new statement from Virginia Space.
“A detailed engineering inspection of the Spaceport has been completed and MARS engineering teams continue to refine the cost and work schedule for Pad-0A facility repairs; estimated to be approximately twelve months.”
While impacted pad and complex infrastructure will be repaired or replaced, the bulk of the work appears to be based on the environmental impact of the failure, with the main crater of the failed rocket located close to the shoreline next to the pad.
“NASA, Orbital, and MARS continue successful execution of an environmental remediation plan, including pumping water from the impact crater and sampling. Initial surface water samples indicate no impact to back bays and tributaries,” added Virginia Space’s statement.
“The environmental team conducted soil sampling in the impact crater and in the area surrounding the launch pad.
“Test results showed the contamination was contained in the area immediately around the crater. This area will require 6” of soil removal for remediation.”
That work begun over the past few days.
The area appears to have avoided major environmental damage, with a NASA report noting the Coast Guard and Virginia Marine Resources Commission reported no observed signs of water pollution, such as oil sheens, following patrols of the area after the mishap.
The main contaminants in and around the crater was noted as diesel range organic (DRO) – indicative of RP-1 or highly-refined kerosene, which, along with liquid oxygen, is the propellant for the Antares first stage.
There was also detection of perchlorate – which is indicative as coming from the solid-fueled Castor XL Upper Stage.
“Perchlorate levels in the impact crater measured about 9,000 parts per billion. In the area around the crater, such as the deluge basin, the perchlorate levels were significantly lower, ranging from 8 to 30 parts per billion,” noted the NASA report.
The report also added that the impact site has a clay layer located about 15 feet beneath ground level, ranging from 15 to 40 feet in thickness, which should keep any contamination from migrating deeper.
The 12 month repair estimate is aligned with the projected return of the Antares, with the rocket on the books to resume Cygnus missions to the ISS in 2016.
It is known that Orbital is working to secure one – to two – flights of the Cygnus on another launch vehicle. It was believed it was likely to be SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 that would fill the gap. However, Orbital have since confirmed they will purchase ULA’s Atlas V for at least one flight, in order to keep up with its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) obligations during the interim period.
According to Virginia Space, Orbital is planning to hot fire (static fire) the Antares at the end of 2015, marking the company’s return to hosting the rocket at the Wallops facility and the expected to return to launch operations in 2016.
This test will also mark the debut of Antares in her upgraded configuration, specifically new first stage engines.
While Orbital has already only noted it is “likely” they will discontinue to use the AJ-26, a stop order has since been put into effect.
As per the replacement engine, evaluations are taking place on utilizing the RD-193 – or RD-181 as they are known when labelled under their ‘”foreign export” designation. However, Orbital is yet to confirm this is the engine of choice.
(Images: via Orbital, Virginia Space and L2’s Antares/Cygnus Section).
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