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Antares at MARS
The Antares rocket carrying the first Cygnus cargo spacecraft is raised into position Friday at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia. (credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.)

A critical time for commercial launch providers

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For a time last week, it looked like we would be in the midst of an unusually concentrated period of critical launches. In the span of less than a week, four launches of new, nearly new, or returning to flight vehicles were on global launch manifests: the inaugural launch of Japan’s Epsilon small launch vehicle, the first launch of SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1, the second launch of Orbital Sciences Corporations Antares rocket carrying the first Cygnus cargo spacecraft, and the first Proton launch since a dramatic launch failure in early July.

Launch manifests are subject to change, of course, and that’s what happened. While the Epsilon launch went off on schedule, and successfully, on Saturday, Orbital slipped its Antares launch a day, from this Tuesday to Wednesday, while the Falcon and Proton launches have been delayed until at least late this month. Nonetheless, all three upcoming launches remain critical in separate, but often interrelated, ways.

Cygnus prepares for flight

First up is Orbital’s launch of its first Cygnus cargo spacecraft, on the second launch its medium-class Antares rocket. That rocket made its debut in April, launching a Cygnus mass simulator and several small satellites (see “Antares rising”, The Space Review, April 22, 2013). The focus on that launch was the launch vehicle, which performed to expectations. “It was a pretty remarkable inaugural launch. It was an extremely clean mission,” said Orbital vice president Mark Pieczynski during a panel session on launch vehicles during the AIAA Space 2013 conference last week in San Diego.

“We’re ready. We’re excited,” said Orbital executive vice president Frank Culbertson. “It’s a very exciting time for Orbital.”

This time around, the attention will be less on the launch vehicle than on its payload, the Cygnus spacecraft. Orbital developed Cygnus, along with Antares, as part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA. A successful flight will close our Orbital’s COTS agreement—as well as the overall COTS program, as SpaceX completed its COTS agreement last year—and allow Orbital to begin commercial cargo deliveries to the station as soon as this December.

It is an ambitious mission. After launch, Cygnus will deploy its solar panels and undergo initial checkouts. Over the next several days, it will gradually maneuver close to the International Space Station (ISS), coming to within four kilometers of the station before NASA gives the go-ahead to move in proximity to the ISS. Cygnus will eventually move to about 12 meters from the station, where, like SpaceX’s Dragon and Japan’s HTV, it will be grappled by the station’s robotic arm and berthed to the station. Cygnus will remain attached to the station for a month before the robotic arm detaches and releases the spacecraft, which will then perform a destructive reentry over the South Pacific Ocean. All of that is designed to be demonstrated on a single test flight; by comparison, SpaceX flew two test flights of its Dragon spacecraft under its COTS agreement, with the second incorporating the milestones of a planned third test flight.

Orbital, aware of the complexity of the mission, is setting expectations accordingly. “Demonstration missions in space constitute a ‘final exam,’ in which all the design and Earth-based testing come together. Potential issues may be encountered during the flight and the conduct of the maneuvers,” the company states in materials about the mission. “If such issues are seen, Orbital and NASA will work together to evaluate the situation and develop a forward plan to complete the mission, if possible, and if not, to maximize the return of engineering test data that will ensure the success of Orbital’s first commercial resupply service mission.”

Still, there’s confidence among company officials that Cygnus and Antares are ready to go. “We’re ready. We’re excited,” said Orbital executive vice president Frank Culbertson during another AIAA Space 2013 panel session last week. “It’s a very exciting time for Orbital.”

A successful mission will not only allow Orbital to “graduate” from the COTS program and proceed with commercial resupply missions, but help build up a track record for the Antares rocket and win additional business for it. While Orbital’s plans for Antares predate the COTS program—it envisioned the rocket, then known as the Taurus II, to be a replacement for the Delta II—to date the only missions on its manifest are the COTS and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions contracted with NASA. The rocket is available for other missions under NASA and Air Force contract vehicles, Pieczynski said, as well as for commercial customers, but so far no additional missions have been announced for it.

“Our objective, our strategy at Orbital Sciences is to be the premier provider of small and medium launch in the US,” Pieczynski said. That strategy, though, may put a particular emphasis on Antares going forward. While Orbital does some missions for the US government using its Minotaur family of rockets—a Minotaur V launched NASA’s LADEE lunar mission earlier this month—it currently has no missions manifested for its Pegasus XL and Taurus XL vehicles. Pieczynski said at AIAA Space 2013 that the company has submitted a proposal to an unspecified customer for a Pegasus XL launch and is “coming close to an opportunity in the commercial market” with the Taurus XL, which failed in its last two launches of NASA payloads.

“We’re just going to rip that band-aid off”

While Orbital prepares for its second Antares launch from Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, SpaceX is working across the country on the next launch of its Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. While the Falcon 9 has launched five times already, dating back to June 2010 (see “The Falcon 9 flies”, The Space Review, June 7, 2010), this launch will be the first for an upgraded version, designated the Falcon 9 v1.1, carrying the CASSIOPE technology demonstration satellite for Canada.

“We’re trying a lot of things for the first time,” said Reisman. “We’re just going to rip that band-aid off and give it a shot.”

The Falcon 9 v1.1 features a number of upgrades, most notably a stretched first stage and new Merlin 1D engines, enhancing its performance. SpaceX is also planning to relight a main engine after stage separation to try and slow down the stage before splashdown enough to permit recovery, another test as part of SpaceX’s ongoing efforts to develop a reusable version of the rocket.

If those milestones weren’t enough, the launch will be the first to use a new payload fairing on the rocket; the previous Falcon 9 launches all carried Dragon spacecraft that didn’t require a fairing. The launch will also be the first from SpaceX’s new facility at Vandenberg. “We’re trying a lot of things for the first time,” said SpaceX commercial crew program manager Garrett Reisman at Space 2013 last week. “We’re just going to rip that band-aid off and give it a shot.”

At the time of last week’s conference, that band-aid ripping, so to speak, was planned for the weekend. In a conference session Tuesday, SpaceX vice president Adam Harris said a static fire test of the Falcon 9—a final milestone before launch—was slated for Wednesday, with launch to follow “in about a week.” However, on Wednesday Reisman said the static fire test has been scrubbed that day, a move that would likely delay the launch into the next week.

The static fire test took place on Thursday, but in a tweet late Thursday night, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said “some anomalies” had been detected in the test, so a launch date was still to be determined. In another tweet early Sunday, Musk said another static test was needed. That test, plus the fact that the launch range at Vandenberg was reserved by the Air Force for missile tests, means that the launch has been pushed back to September 29 or 30, he said. Neither Musk nor SpaceX have disclosed the issues with the earlier static fire test that caused the postponement.

The upgraded Falcon 9 is important for SpaceX not just for its future CRS missions—the improved performance will allow it to carry more cargo to the station—but also to win additional launch business. The next Falcon 9 launch after CASSIOPE will be its first to carry a commercial communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit, a market that still constitutes the bulk of the commercial launch demand. It’s also a market that, until SpaceX’s entry, has been largely limited to European and Russian launchers in recent years.

“At SpaceX, our goal is to win those launches and do them from US soil,” Harris said at the conference. SpaceX does have a backlog of commercial launches, both to geosynchronous and other orbits, but at the moment it appears commercial customers are awaiting the outcome of the upcoming Falcon 9 launches. At a satellite industry meeting in Paris last week, Arianespace announced orders for five commercial launches, and even Lockheed Martin announced a rare commercial order for the Atlas V. SpaceX announced no launch orders.

Proton’s return

Another company that left Paris last week without any announcements of new launch orders is International Launch Services (ILS), the US-based, Russian-owned company that markets the Proton launch vehicle to commercial customers. Unlike SpaceX, which is attempting to demonstrate an essentially new launch vehicle, ILS is faced with the challenge of proving to commercial customers it has resolved the quality issues that have dogged the Proton in the last few years.

The latest, and most visible, Proton failure took place in early July, when a Proton rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, only to veer off course seconds later. The rocket flew sideways for a moment, then turned toward the earth, crashing a half minute after liftoff. The rocket’s payload, three GLONASS navigation satellites for the Russian government, were destroyed.

“The Russians do understand quality,” ILS’s Muniz said, but that they do things differently than American or European companies.

An investigation into the launch failure determined that the root cause was the improper installation of three yaw angular rate sensors, which, according to some reports, were placed in the rocket upside down. ILS concurred with the results of the Russian investigation, and announced a return to flight carrying a commercial Satellite, Astra 2E for SES, on the night of September 16.

Late last week, though, ILS postponed the launch, stating that engineers reported an “out of tolerance” reading with the rocket’s first stage. A new launch date hasn’t been set, but Russian media reports indicate that the launch would be postponed to late this month or early next month. (Some Russian reports also suggested that, even without the technical issue, the launch could have been postponed at the behest of Kazakh officials, who want the cleanup from the July failure completed before another Proton launch takes place.)

In the meantime, Khrunichev, the Russian company that manufactures the Proton and owns ILS, is taking steps to improve its quality control processes. Speaking at AIAA Space 2013, ILS’s Ben Muniz said those steps include analyses of quality processes and additional audits within Khrunichev, a review of additional training and recertification requirements, and the formation of a “telemetry analysis group” to analyze trends in telemetry from recent Proton launches. In addition, ILS has created a new position of vice president of mission assurance and product development, naming Kirk Pysher, formerly with Sea Launch, to that position. He will be “a single point of focus” for quality issues, Muniz said.

“The Russians do understand quality,” Muniz said, noting that Khrunichev is certified to the “Russian equivalent” of AS9100, a quality management standard widely used by Western aerospace companies, but that they do things differently than American or European companies. He added that there are limits in how much ILS, a US company, can assist Khrunichev on launch vehicle quality issues because of ITAR.

So, while all the action might not be concentrated to a single week, this week and the next few will provide several opportunities for companies to prove, or prove again, their launch capabilities, with implications for the commercial market and NASA.