The damage to the Wallops Island launch facility caused by the explosion of the Antares rocket last week can be seen in this aerial image

Orbital to ditch Russian engines in light of crash investigation hints

Orbital Science will stop using the Russian-designed AJ26 rocket engine to propel its Antares rockets after crash investigators framed its main stage turbopump as the likely culprit behind last week’s take-off explosion.

In a statement released today, Orbital Sciences has pledged to speed up an upgrade of the Antares main propulsion system, discontinuing the use of the AJ26 engine immediately. The engine, based on an earlier Russian design is manufactured for Orbital Sciences by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

“Orbital’s Antares launch failure Accident Investigation Board (AIB) is making good progress in determining the primary cause of last week’s failure,” Orbital Sciences said in the statement.

“A preliminary review of telemetry and video data has been conducted and substantial debris from the Antares rocket and its Cygnus payload has been collected and examined. While the work of the AIB continues, preliminary evidence and analysis conducted to date points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines.”

Bound by a contract with Nasa that expects Orbital Sciences to  carry out eight cargo delivery missions with its unmanned Cygnus vehicle to the International Space Station by 2016, the company has decided to conduct two missions using a back-up launcher compatible with the Cygnus capsule. This will give the company enough time to upgrade the Antares propulsion system while fulfilling its commitments to Nasa.

“While last week’s Antares failure was very disappointing to all of us, the company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback,” said David W Thompson, Orbital’s chairman and chief executive officer. “We intend to move forward safely but also expeditiously to put our CRS cargo programme back on track and to accelerate the introduction of our upgraded Antares rocket.”

The firm hopes the Antares propulsion system upgrade could be finalised and ready to fly by 2016.

The company will also fund repairs of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) launch complex at Nasa’s Wallops Flight Facility, heavily damaged by the explosion last week, which saw the heavily loaded Antares rocket turning into a ball of fire just seconds after lift-off.

“Exact financial impacts to Orbital will depend on which of several specific options for near-term launches is selected, but they are not expected to be material on an annual basis in 2015,” Thompson said. “In all cases, no significant adverse effects are projected in 2016 or future years, in part because the cost of the Antares propulsion system upgrade was already part of our internal investment plan during that time.”

The company reassured the public that tax-payer funded Nasa won’t foot the bill for the privately operated company.

Orbital Sciences has previously conducted three successful missions to the ISS – two as part of the commercial contract with Nasa, preceded by one test mission in 2013.

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