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Sunset over Wallops – One Last Ride on Antares 230+

Wallops Island – Virginia, USA

The NG-19 Antares launch vehicle standing ready on Launch Pad 0A ahead of it’s final launch.
Credit: David Diebold

On August 1 2023, at 8:31 pm –  Northrop Grumman’s Antares launch vehicle will lift off from Wallops Island, bound for the International Space Station with 8,000 pounds of cargo, experiments and food for the multinational crew onboard the orbital lab. This launch marks the final launch of the Antares’ “classic” configuration – following a 10 year service history.

NG-19, the 19th flight of the Cygnus cargo vehicle – continues its storied history as a reliable space station cargo vehicle. Compared to other designs, Cygnus is designed to enable as much cargo as possible to be delivered to the station, with no capability to return cargo to Earth. The Cygnus spacecraft consists of two basic components: the Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM) and the Service Module (SM). The PCM is manufactured by Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy, while the SM is manufactured by Northrop Grumman in Dulles, Virginia. During nominal CRS missions, Cygnus maneuvers close to the International Space Station, where the Canadarm2 robotic arm grapples the spacecraft and berths it to a Common Berthing Mechanism on the Unity module. Similar in fashion to the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle and the retired SpaceX Dragon, but not the other active American CRS Dragon 2 vehicle, which docks autonomously. Cygnus is launch vehicle agnostic, enabling it to plug into a variety of launch vehicles. This mission will deliver 8,000 pounds of cargo and experiments – the vehicle itself functioning as a testbed for fireproofing technologies as part of the Saffire-VI program. As per tradition, Northrop Grumman has named their Cygnus vehicle S.S Laurel Clark – an astronaut who passed away in the Columbia disaster.  

Cygnus traditionally has launched atop the Antares launch vehicle – manufactured by a conglomerate of manufacturers. The first stage of Antares burns RP-1 (kerosene) and liquid oxygen (LOX). As Northrop Grumman (then Orbital ATK) had little experience with large liquid stages and LOX propellant, the first stage core was designed and is manufactured in Ukraine by Pivdenne Design Office and Pivdenmash and includes propellant tanks, pressurization tanks, valves, sensors, feed lines, tubing, wiring and other associated hardware. The second stage is a Castor 30-series solid-fuel rocket, developed as a derivative of the Castor 120 solid motor used as Minotaur-C’s first stage, itself based on a Peacekeeper ICBM first stage.The first two flights of Antares used a Castor 30A, which was replaced by the enhanced Castor 30B for subsequent flights. Out of 17 total launches, Antares has suffered one failure. During the fifth launch, ORB-3, on October 28, 2014, the rocket failed catastrophically and the vehicle and payload were destroyed. In the interim period, Cygnus relied on Atlas vehicles to carry cargo to the International Space Station.

The first US Electron vehicle standing at LC-2 in December 2022 ahead of its first launch attempt.
Credit: David Diebold

At the beginning of 2022, the future of Antares and Cygnus looked uncertain. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and subsequent destruction of rocket-building facilities negated construction of future Antares vehicles – putting ISS resupply into jeopardy. Northrop Grumman announced in August, 2022 that they would be partnering with Firefly Aerospace to construct the next generation vehicle – Antares 330. The 330 variant will differ from previous Antares vehicles – with a widened first stage boasting 7 Miranda engines, courtesy of Firefly. The second stage will retain the Castor 30 solid motor found on all Antares vehicles – while also including an option to swap for a liquid upper stage as part of Firefly’s MLV program. Both Antares 330 and MLV will use Pad 0A at Wallops Island, with launch cadence increasing as both vehicles come online. In the stand down period between Antares 230 and 330, Northrop Grumman will continue to operate Cygnus spacecraft in regular supply missions to the ISS, utilizing SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicles out of Cape Canaveral . 

Antares has become something of a flagship customer for Wallops Island, a relatively small spaceport in the Mid Atlantic. The cadence of vehicles over the last ten years, despite the ORB-3 failure, has remained fairly consistent – bringing necessary cargo and experiments to the ISS. In conjunction with the Virginia Spaceport Authority, Northrop Grumman has attracted other players to the Mid Atlantic – including the American/New Zealand corporation Rockelab. Their pad, LC-2, hosted their first launch “Virginia is for Launch Lovers” in January, 2023. Rocketlab also plans to expand their facilities along the Atlantic Coast, with the introduction of their new medium lift vehicle – Neutron. This reusable vehicle will take advantage of the range availability offered by Wallops, which will in turn enable the company to turn vehicles around at their pace. Despite the stand down expected for Antares, work in Virginia for other parties will continue.

Assateague Lighthouse located on Assateague National Seashore near Chincoteague, Virginia.
Credit: David Diebold

Notes From the Pad:

The energy on the pad this morning was palpable. As our press bus pulled up to the pad, the clicking of shutters was audible, and excited murmuring more so. The town of Chincoteague has a murmur about it too – questions like “are you here for the rocket?” get tossed across tables in restaurants. Antares has been a hometown hero for me since the start of the program in 2013, with launches visible from across the East Coast. As we walked up to take our photos, the crews on the pad were hard at work, preparing the vehicle for its final flight to the International Space Station. It is truly an impressive sight, a reminder that spaceflight has components coming together from across the world. The feeling of this launch, however, is bittersweet – a contrasting reminder of the complexities of geopolitics. The war in Ukraine has caused a serious rethink of policy and practice, alongside a drastically changing market. This chapter of Antares, in the face of it all, is closing – but not forever. There will be a time when the pad is occupied again, new generation of vehicles ready to support human spaceflight and adventures beyond.

Godspeed NG-19, Godspeed S.S Laurel Clark.

Here’s to you, Antares.   

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