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Orbital to fly new rocket with old Russian engines

by Brendan McGarry on March 21, 2013

Orbital’s Antares rocket rolls out to the launch pad on Oct. 1. Source: NASA

Orbital Sciences Corp. is set to fly its newest and biggest rocket for the first time next month, a spokesman said.

The Dulles, Virginia-based company plans launch the medium-class Antares rocket between April 16 and April 18 from Wallops Island, Virginia, according to spokesman Barron Beneski. A date and time will be announced closer to launch.

The two-stage booster, initially developed for the defense market, is flying its maiden flight as part of a test mission for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. After retiring its shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA has turned to the private sector and companies such as Orbital and SpaceX to resupply the International Space Station. Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with the agency for at least eight cargo missions to the orbital outpost.

“We’re pretty much set to go,” Beneski said March 21 in a telephone interview. “The rocket itself is all assembled.”

The long-delayed test flight calls for launching a simulator of the Cygnus spacecraft into orbit. If all goes well, the company plans to attempt its first mission to the station sometime in the summer and begin regular cargo deliveries before the end of the year. Successful flights for NASA may lead to more military business for the company.

“We are continuing our business plan to market the Antares rocket to defense and intelligence customers, NASA’s civil space and science communities, and also to commercial customers,” Beneski said.

The rocket for its first stage uses two liquid-fuel AJ26 engines, made by Aerojet, part of California-based GenCorp Inc. They’re modified versions of the NK-33s built in Russia more than four decades ago for its moon program, which was later canceled. Aerojet bought about 40 NK-33 engines in the mid-1990s and, under a contract with Orbital, modified them specifically for Antares, according to Aerojet. The second-stage of the rocket uses a solid-fuel engine made by Arlington, Virginia-based Alliant Techsystems Inc.

Orbital, which also makes satellites, saw an opportunity for Antares amid the dwindling inventory of Delta IIs sold by Centennial, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. and Chicago-based Boeing Co.

The rocket may be a contender for such military programs as the Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program-3, known as OSP-3, and Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, known as EELV.

Orbital also plans to launch two more missions from Wallops Island this year, including one for the Air Force, bringing the total number of liftoffs from the site to five, Beneski said.

“It’s going to be a very busy place this year,” he said.

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