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Cygnus’ Ride To Orbit Gets Another Upgrade

Antares 330 render. Credit : Firefly Aerospace

The Antares rocket has once again beaten the odds. After the Russo-Ukrainian war eliminated the potential for future shipments of the Russian built RD-181 and Ukrainian built tankage for the Antares rocket, it seemed to be the end of the line for Cygnus’ personal ride to orbit. However a new chapter is now being written, as on August 8th, 2022 Northrop Grumman announced a partnership with Firefly Aerospace to provide new engines for the rocket, as well as a new composite first stage for the vehicle.

Antares 330
Credit: Firefly Aerospace

The Antares 330 will be the largest variant of the Antares rocket to date, featuring seven a 4.3 diameter composite first stage developed by Firefly Aerospace, utilizing seven of their new Miranda rocket engines. The vehicle will still use liquid oxygen and RP-1 on the first stage, propellants already available at Launch Pad 0A at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

Despite the available facilities at MARS LP-0A, upgrades will still be necessary for the launch complex as the Antares 330 will have nearly twice the thrust of the contemporary Antares 230+. It is likely these upgrades will mostly pertain to the complex’s sound suppression system, and the vehicles strongback transporter.

However, Antares 330 won’t be all new, as the upper stage will be carried over from the Antares 230+, a Castor 30XL solid rocket motor. The upgrades to the vehicle are expected to “significantly increase Antares mass to orbit capability”. A firm launch date for the upgraded Antares rocket has yet to be announced, however Northrop Grumman has stated they are targeting a debut flight around the late 2024 timeframe.

That leaves a roughly 18 month gap in service for the Cygnus spacecraft, which will be filled by 3 missions flown atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle, keeping their CRS contract on schedule while they develop their new launch vehicle. This is in a similar fashion to the flights aboard United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V while the Antares vehicle was grounded  after the October 2014 explosion.

With Cygnus poised to continue supporting the ISS until at least 2029, and lined up for other commercial stations, Antares 330 looks set for a prominent and busy future lofting cargo to astronauts up above.

Edited By: David Diebold

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