Orbital ATK preps Cygnus flights; Antares enhancements on track for 2019

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Following a highly successful Return To Flight of their newly upgraded Antares 230 series rocket this past October, Orbital ATK is deep into processing for the OA-7 and OA-8 missions that will ferry supplies to the International Space Station this year.  Additionally, the company is progressing forward with plans to integrate new upgrades to the Antares, enhancements that should be available by 2019.

Cygnus OA-7 and OA-8E flights:

Following October’s successful Return To Flight (RTF) of the Antares vehicle following the Orb-3 launch mishap in October 2014, Orbital ATK successfully demonstrated their ability to recover from a launch mishap and return their vehicle to flight – all while continuing to fulfill their CRS-1 contract for NASA despite the grounding of their rocket.

2015-08-07-122716With two successful flights of Cygnus on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets in December 2015 and March 2016, the return of Antares to flight initially signaled a shift of Cygnus launch operations back to Orbital ATK’s flagship rocket.

However, the grounding of the SpaceX Falcon 9 fleet and a suspension of those commercial resupply missions coupled with a desire to maximize the amount of cargo sent to the Station in the early part of 2017, resulted in NASA and Orbital ATK agreeing to shift the OA-7 Cygnus from Antares to a third Atlas V rocket.

Importantly, and as reported previously by NASASpaceflight.com, the decision to switch OA-7 to an Atlas V had nothing to do with Antares – with Orbital ATK stating their happiness with the flight performance of Antares on that mission.

Moreover, the decision to switch OA-7 to Atlas V to increase upmass showed its value even more following the December 2016 launch failure of the Progress MS-04 vehicle, which was lost during third stage flight.

Presently, the OA-7 Cygnus flight is scheduled to launch a heavy supply of internal payloads and supplies to the International Space Station. The launch was set to take place on 16 March at 0429-0459 GMT (0029-0059 EDT). However, this slipped on Friday to a target of March 19 (window opening at 22:56 EDT).

After launch, Cygnus will perform several days of rendezvous with the ISS, during which time the SpX-10 CRS mission will be unberthed on 19 March.

Once berthed to the Node-1 “Unity” Nadir port on – still believed to be 22 March – OA-7, according to the latest Visiting Vehicle Flight Planning and Integration Panel document – available for download on L2 – will remain on Station for 90 days, with an unberthing currently scheduled for 20 June.

2016-09-07-122902Following OA-7, the OA-8E Cygnus is currently set to launch on 1 October 2017 and rendezvous and berth with the ISS on 4 October.

Originally, OA-8E had been planned for the summer of 2017, but with SpaceX flights to ISS now set to resume later this month (and three Dragon flights to ISS planned or the first half of the year), the entire visiting vehicle and resupply mission manifest was subsequently realigned.

This realignment pushed OA-8E on Antares back into the last quarter of the year.

Furthermore, this realignment contains a four month planned gap in resupply missions – with July, August, and September completely devoid of resupply vehicle arrivals.

Under the current manifest, Progress MS-06/67P, will arrive at Station on 16 June – at which point the next resupply craft is Cygnus OA-8E in October.

Like the OA-7 mission, OA-8E carries a planned 86 day stay on Station – with an unberth currently planned for 29 December 2017.

Following OA-8E, Antares will be called upon again for the OA-9E mission in March 2018 (with a 90 day berthed stay), OA-10E in October 2018 (60 days), and OA-11E in December 2018 (60 days – though this mission is highly likely to slip into 2019).

Of particular note for the next three Cygnus missions is NASA’s desire to keep them on Station for 90 days each – 30 days beyond Cygnus’s minimum contracted berthed ability.

Antares future developments/enhancements:

With a successful RTF under its belt, Antares stands ready to support NASA’s CRS-1 contract flights in 2017 and beyond.

However, it has long been a stated goal of Orbital (now Orbital ATK) to offer Antares for more than just Cygnus flights to ISS.

The first major step in this direction occurred in 2012 when NASA added Antares to the National Launch Services II (NLS-II) contract, which allows Orbital ATK to use Antares to bid on NASA scientific mission launch contracts in competition with other commercial rocket providers such as ULA and SpaceX.

Orbital ATK also offers the Antares vehicle to the commercial launch market.

Moreover, the company has always planned for a series of upgrades and enhancements to Antares.

2016-06-16-000811Many of those upgrades were fast-tracked in 2014 following the launch mishap in the opening seconds of the Orb-3 mission.

In fact, the first major upgrade was set to debut on the Orb-3 mission with the first flight of the CASTOR 30XL upper stage – which eventually debuted in October 2016 on the first flight of the Antares 230 series.

With Antares 230 now in flight, Orbital ATK is planning the next series of upgrades to the vehicle.

In all, the company hopes to debut the new enhancements by 2019, though Orbital ATK did note – in response to inquires from NASASpaceFlight.com – that some if not all of the improvements might be available before then.

According to Mark Pieczynski, Orbital ATK Vice President, Flight Systems Group, “A further improved version [of Antares] is in development which will include: Stage 1 core updates including structural reinforcements and optimization to accommodate increased loads.

“(Also) certain refinements to the RD-181 engines and CASTOR 30XL motor; and Payload accommodations improvements including ‘pop-top’ feature incorporated in fairing to allow late Cygnus cargo load and optimized fairing adapter structure.”

Previously, it was understood that these planned upgrades from the Antares 230 series would create a vehicle known as the Antares 300 series.

However, when asked specifically about Antares 300 series development, Mr. Pieczynski stated that Orbital ATK has “not determined to call the upgrades we are working on a 300 series.  This is still TBD.”

(Images: NASA, Orbital ATK, and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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