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Orbital drafting Antares commercial launch bid

Posted: October 20, 2013

Orbital Sciences Corp. officials say the success of the company's first two Antares rocket launches has positioned the medium-class launcher to battle for contracts for commercial and national security missions.

Photo of the first Antares launch on April 21. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
"With two really good launches under our belt, things are picking up in terms of customer interest," said David Thompson, Orbital's chairman and CEO, in a conference call with investment analysts.

Orbital Sciences conducted the Antares rocket's two flights to date under the auspices of a NASA-funded test program for the International Space Station's commercial cargo resupply service.

"The five-month interval between its first launch in April and its second launch in September gives us confidence both that the overall vehicle design is solid and that we are in a good position to carry out three more Antares launches during the next 12 months," Thompson said Oct. 17.

The first launch on April 21 put a dummy payload in orbit, and the second Antares flight Sept. 18 launched Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on a demonstration mission to the space station.

The automated Cygnus spaceship arrived at the space station 11 days later and is set to depart the orbiting research complex Tuesday.

With two missions completed, eight more flights remain on the Antares launch manifest through 2016. All of the launches are dedicated to delivering supplies to the space station under a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services, or CRS, contract with NASA.

According to Thompson, Orbital has at least two opportunities for Antares launch contracts in the next year.

"We have one specific pursuit that we're engaged in with a commercial customer," Thompson said, without identifying the customer. "A proposal will be submitted this quarter and we're anticipating a decision in the first quarter of next year, hopefully a positive one."

Launches from the Antares rocket's existing launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Va., can put payloads into low Earth orbit.

Orbital Sciences has an option to add a third stage to the basic two-stage Antares rocket to serve payloads requiring a launch into high-altitude orbits, such as geostationary communications satellites, and interplanetary probes heading away from Earth.

Missions into high-inclination polar orbits must launch from a West Coast facility. Orbital is considering Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Kodiak Launch Complex, Alaska, to host potential polar orbit launches.

"In 2014, I think we've got a decent opportunity mid- to late-year in the government market as well," Thompson said. "Until we got a few launches under our belt, there was a limit to what we could reasonably do there, but with these two launches, particularly being as smooth as they both were, I think customer interest now is pretty high."

Thompson said the next Antares launch, and the first mission of the eight-flight resupply contract, is set for liftoff in mid-December.

File photo of an Antares rocket lifted inside its hangar at Wallops Island, Va. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
By 2016, Thompson said Orbital aims to have three or four Antares launches per year.

"If it's four per year, half of those would be CRS missions and half would be for other customers," Thompson said.

Orbital officials on the Oct. 17 conference did not discuss the company's long-term strategy for the procurement of Antares first stage engines. The rocket is currently powered by two AJ26 engines provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The engines, known in Russia as NK-33s, were built in the 1960s and 1970s for the Soviet Union's ill-fated N1 moon rocket. Aerojet Rocketdyne says it has enough engines to cover its commitments for 10 Antares launches, plus 23 more engines already purchased from Russia available for new contracts.

Beyond that, Aerojet Rocketdyne would need to buy more engines or facilitate the resumption of a cold NK-33 production line in Russia. Orbital has also inquired about alternative engines.

Frank Culbertson, Orbital's executive vice president and general manager of advanced programs, said in September the company had contacted every U.S. rocket engine-builder to survey the market.

If Orbital's flight rate prognostications come true, the Antares would need a fresh supply of engines, either newly-purchased or -built AJ26s or another engine from a different supplier, by about 2019.

"Over the longer term, we would hope to see the annual flight rate increase to five or six per year by the end of the decade," Thompson said.