Sunday, November 12, 2017

Orbital ATK Successfully Launches Antares Rocket Carrying Cargo Capsule Into Orbit: Mission to international space station comes as company seeks to establish itself as major Pentagon launch provider

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
Nov. 12, 2017 7:41 a.m. ET

Orbital ATK Inc. launched a civilian cargo capsule into orbit Sunday, marking the second successful flight of the redesigned Antares rocket and raising the company’s hopes of developing a more powerful booster for Defense Department missions in the next decade.

During the flawless liftoff from coastal Virginia at 7:20 a.m. local time, both rocket stages functioned as intended, propelling a Cygnus spacecraft into a planned trajectory to reach the international space station. The Cygnus, an automated cargo spacecraft, was crammed with nearly four tons of food, experiments and supplies, including cameras, computer hardware and more than a dozen small experimental satellites.

The launch continued the company’s rebound from a catastrophic 2014 rocket explosion at the start of a mission for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Investigators said the explosion—which destroyed a cargo capsule it was carrying and all its contents—was caused by a malfunctioning, 1970s-era Russian-built engine.

An Antares rocket with the same revamped propulsion system as Sunday’s craft delivered an unmanned capsule to the orbiting international laboratory last year as part of a NASA contract.

Sunday morning’s launch also is likely to increase momentum for Orbital ATK’s efforts to eventually compete with a trio of other companies vying for Pentagon approval to transport future national-security satellites into high-altitude orbits.

Commercial space-transportation companies Space Exploration Technologies Corp., led by billionaire Elon Musk, and Blue Origin LLC, founded by Inc. Chairman Jeff Bezos, also are looking to snare such future Pentagon business. So is United Launch Alliance, a rocket-making joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. , which currently is the primary heavy-lift launch provider for the U.S. military.

Next year, Air Force procurement officials are expected to pick three contractor teams to provide prototype rockets intended to meet military needs through the next decades.

A well-functioning Antares could help buttress Virginia-based Orbital ATK’s argument for its next-generation launch system and potentially persuade Pentagon brass on the company’s resilience and expertise. Just four days before the latest launch, the company announced it cleared an important milestone testing the structural strength of the composite case for future solid rocket motors.

Building on the company’s existing family of boosters, the follow-on rocket is being designed to transport up to 15,400 pounds into high-earth orbit. Depending on Air Force funding, technical progress and other factors, the new rocket is expected to have its first certification test flight in 2021.

Sunday’s mission also comes as Northrop Grumman Corp. seeks to complete its proposed acquisition of Orbital ATK in a transaction valued at more than $9 billion.

The 133-foot Antares rocket blasted into clear skies above Wallops Island, with the first stage separating at an altitude of roughly 67 miles at a speed of more than 9,000 miles an hour. All engines cut off, as expected, about six minutes into the flight, and the capsule separated about nine minutes after liftoff.

During the roughly three minutes of the Antares’s main stage firing, both of the kerosene-fueled replacement RD-181 engines performed as anticipated by the company. The Cygnus spacecraft is slated to reach the space station Tuesday, and it will remain there until early December while astronauts unload it and then use it as a temporary space to conduct experiments.

The capsule will be loaded with refuse before leaving the station and is designed to burn up during descent toward Earth.

The launch was initially planned for Saturday but was aborted with only about one minute to liftoff as a precautionary measure when a small aircraft flew at an altitude of roughly 500 feet into the restricted area surrounding the launchpad. The Federal Aviation Administration, which had issued a routine notice restricting flights in the vicinity, said it was investigating.

Unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which has slashed commercial launch costs, revolutionized the global aerospace industry and has been ramping up overall operations to try to launch as frequently as twice a month, Antares hasn’t attracted any commercial contracts. With Sunday’s launch, the Orbital ATK rocket has now carried out four successful cargo deliveries to the space station over four years, but company officials have stressed the next-generation version will be less expensive and more flexible.

Original article can be found here ➤

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