Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being felt at Northrop Grumman, forcing it to make alternative plans that now include asking Firefly Aerospace to build the first stage of its Antares rocket.
The Antares’ maiden flight was in 2013 with a first stage powered by a pair of Aerojet AJ26 rocket engines. Those engines, refurbished NK-33s originally built in the Soviet Union 40 years previously then imported to the US by new owner Aerojet in the 1990s, failed during testing, followed by a launch failure in 2014.
The AJ26s were then retired, and Northrop Grumman switched to RD-181 engines supplied by Russia’s NPO Energomash.
This might have seemed a splendid idea in the previous decade, but having a first stage manufactured in Ukraine and powered by Russian engines does not make for a stable supply chain in 2022 – for obvious reasons. While Northrop Grumman has enough first stages for two more launches, it will have to look elsewhere in order to launch its Cygnus freighter to the International Space Station (ISS). The company had said it was considering alternatives, and here we are.
Northrop Grumman has tapped Firefly Aerospace to provide engines for its next generation of the Antares vehicle, the 330. Seven of the company’s Miranda engines will power the new first stage, which will leverage the company’s composites technology for its structure and tanks.
“This new stage will also significantly increase Antares mass to orbit capability,” said Northrop Grumman.
It is a significant risk: Firefly has only managed one launch of its Alpha rocket so far, which ended in failure seconds after lift-off. A second launch attempt for the two-stage rocket is planned for August 2022. The company’s Beta launcher is a considerably beefier beast, making use of seven Miranda engines in its first stage and a single Viranda engine in its upper stage to send 13,000kg to Low Earth Orbit. Quite an improvement on the approximately 8,000kg of the Antares.
It is, however, only the first stage being swapped out for the Antares. The second stage will continue to be powered by the Castor 30XL engine.
The deal is somewhat light on details, and Northrop Grumman will have a gap to fill until the new launcher is ready. The next Cygnus freighters are due to launch to the ISS in October and February. After that, the existing Antares stock will be exhausted.
Following 2014’s Antares failure, the Atlas V was utilized to get Cygnus to the ISS. However, with the rest of the Atlas V rockets spoken for, and its replacement (powered by Blue Origin BE-4 engines) yet to trouble the skies, the US domestic alternative will be SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
According to Reuters, three of Musk’s missiles have been booked to keep the Cygnus launching in late 2023 and during 2024. ®