Orbital to drop problematic engine, will keep delivering to space station


Orbital Sciences Corp. says it will discontinue use of the refurbished Soviet-era engines that powered its Antares rocket that exploded shortly after launch.

Those engines, dubbed AJ26, were developed in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, then purchased by Aerojet Rocketdyne 30 years later and refurbished for space launches by U.S. commercial space companies with contracts with NASA.

Orbital Sciences said it would purchase launch vehicles from an outside source while it accelerates plans to develop a new engine for its Antares booster.

While it did not identify which outside source it would use, the company said it was in discussions with two companies in the U.S. and one in Europe.

The company has five missions left on its contract with NASA to launch supply capsules to the International Space Station using its Cygnus cargo capsules.

Its Oct. 28 cargo mission ended when the Antares rocket exploded just 15 seconds after liftoff, with initial investigations suggesting a problem in the rocket booster's main engine turbopump.

Before the launch failure at Virginia's Wallops Island facility, Antares rockets had accomplished four successful resupply missions to the space station. The Antares explosion was the first launch failure since NASA turned over space station supply missions to commercial contractors after retiring its fleet of space shuttles.

"The company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback," Orbital Sciences CEO David Thompson said. "We intend to move forward safely but also expeditiously to put our CRS cargo program back on track and to accelerate the introduction of our upgraded Antares rocket."

A new engine for the Antares could be ready in 2016, a year earlier than was originally planned, he said.

The accident might result in slight delays in future missions but launches could take place over the next two years as specified in the company's $1.9 billion contract with NASA, Thompson said.

"We will purchase one or two non-Antares launch vehicles for Cygnus flights in 2015 and possibly in early 2016, and combine them with several upgraded Antares rocket launches of additional Cygnus spacecraft in 2016 to deliver all remaining ... cargo," he said.

The heavily modified engines used to power the Antares rocket were originally developed for a Soviet program to send men to the moon that was eventually abandoned after a number of in-flight failures.

The explosion of the Antares on Oct. 28 has brought calls from U.S. lawmakers for the development of a homegrown engine and an end to relying on Cold War era technology purchased from abroad.

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