Orbital to fly new rocket with old Russian engines

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.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Davis

    Old Russian rocket engines eh? Are they desperate or just being frugal? Either way, I’d prefer good-ole fashioned American made engines!

  • BlackOwl18E

    Old and Russian usually means cheap and reliable. Looks like that’s what Orbital is looking for.

  • Ben

    So you cover these guys and not the leader of the pack, SpaceX?

  • Nork

    Another one is the RD-180. Russian made “”state of art” rocket engine which is being purchased by USA

  • USS ENTERPRISE

    What about the Falcon Heavy from Space X? That rocket is FAR more interesting, and powerful, then this thing. That and the Boeing Delta IV Heavy really need the attention they aren’t getting. While NASA is sadly falling to tough money problems, Boeing and Space X are doing alright here. Cover them more often than these small companies using old Russian tech.

  • w dan

    their jet engines for fighters have a BAD history for failing, why do we think these will be any better?

  • oblatt

    >Better is an arbitrary decision that really can’t be made.

    The decline in the rapid US space industry where we now have to beg rides from the Russians and Chinese is greatly assisted by the folks from loser-land who cant tell the difference between better and worse.

  • So?

    I smell a SpaceX shill because, because you see, these 40-year old engines have more performance than SpaceX engines.

  • A C

    It’s good that we can reuse the old hardware.
    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.

  • eagles2

    So a Satern 5 booster is not as good as a N1, I think american booster technology must be better or the ruskies would been first on the moon

  • Kodai

    According to Wiki, the NK-33 engine was built originally for the N-1 rocket, which had zero successful flights. These might be modified engines, but I won’t be suprised to see fireworks.

  • MCQknight

    The NK-33’s never actually flew on the N1 they were designed for. They would have been ready for the 5th launch, but the 5th launch was cancelled.

  • MCQknight

    Russian engines are generally more efficient than American engines, while American engines are generally larger and more powerful. The reason is simple. Russia lacked the infrastructure and metallurgy to build engines large enough to launch very heavy payloads. This meant that they needed to compensate by having more engines in their first stages on large rockets. Since more engines (besides adding a greater chance of failure) equals a higher weight penalty, Russian designers squeezed every bit of performance they could out their smaller engines.

    • Stan

      What are you talking about. SSMEs had the highest ISP of any rocket engine. Musk now claims that Merlin-1D engines have the highest thrust/weight of any torch in use today.

  • Bob Wilbur

    This article is another example of our country going to hell in a handbasket…as it has been for years now.

  • Belesari

    SpaceX just tested their new Merlin 1D engine which has better thrust than the older one meaning 25% more mass to orbit for less money. They also have the Falcon 9 Heavy which lifts even more mass-to-orbit and does it cheaper (efficency goes up the larger the launcher).

    AND they produce all of their engines in the US. Oh yea, and they have had a engine explode and the rocket get to orbit unfazed.

    Oh and they are already working on making their Falcon 9 series fully reusable and capable of landing vertically on a launch pad.

    So yea me I’d go for the American Launchers.

  • Belesari

    SpaceX just tested their new Merlin 1D engine which has better thrust than the older one meaning 25% more mass to orbit for less money. They also have the Falcon 9 Heavy which lifts even more mass-to-orbit and does it cheaper (efficency goes up the larger the launcher).

  • rudyh60

    Yep gents, another oops……Houston…..we gots lots of engine probs……….oi vey…..

  • Stratege

    “What are you talking about. SSMEs had the highest ISP of any rocket engine. Musk now claims that Merlin-1D engines have the highest thrust/weight of any torch in use today.”

    SSME was brilliant design. But the Soviets designed RD-0120 rocket engine (Energia-Buran’s second stage engine fueled by LH2/LOX) which had not only a very comparable ISP/thrust, but also it was considerably cheaper and more cost-efficient compared to the SSME.
    SpaceX’s claims about Merlin-1D as an engine with highest thrust/weight in history is more likely wrong. RD-701 (Russian tripropellant rocket engine) have significantly better thrust/weight ( 212:1) than Merlin-1D (>150:1).
    Even 40-years old NK-33 with its 137:1 is pretty comparable to a modern Merlin-D.

  • XYZ

    http://www.astronautix.com/engines/rd701.htm
    RD-701
    Thrust to Weight Ratio: 111.22

  • Алекс

    1 – x NC -33 (14D15) even after 40 years, is a revolutionary and reliable. Even with foreign particles in the fuel and oxidizer works without problems . It has high performance and high percentage of fuel flammability .2 in regard reusable systems . Shatll was not the first shuttle. The USSR had developed such a system as the needle and spiral. The prototype you start using today . Developments that have hit the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union. under Yeltsin.3 As for the exterior Space Shatlla – who first demonstrated this project was Gagarin , who made at the end of the Institute. If you do not believe there is a photo .4 Energy Buran was not a cheap version of Space Shatlla . Buran was more advanced technologically . And Energy has more power than Shatll .5 BR Start from the Baikonur Baykanur requires 19 percent more power . Than starting from Cape Canaveral due to its geographical origin.6 x Energy is also reusable , but note that baykanur is in the Barrens. Canaveral near water.7 th engine used on American rockets NK33 does not change, as you say. Its just renamed . Technically it does not change.

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