Northrup Grumman’s Antares set for its swan song launch

Antares 230+ on the launch pad at sunrise (Credit NASA)

Later this evening at 8:31 p.m. ET (00:31 UTC on the 2nd), the Northrup Grumman Antares 230+ rocket is scheduled to launch its final resupply mission to the International Space Station.

The rocket will lift off from Launch Pad 0 at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island in Virginia, carrying the Cygnus cargo vehicle. Cygnus will be loaded with 8,200 lbs (3,719 kg) of supplies and experiments for the orbiting outpost.

The Ukrainian-built Antares launch vehicle has only been used to launch resupply missions to the ISS since its debut launch in April 2013, then owned by Orbital Sciences. Since its debut, it has had one failure and, as a result, underwent its first upgrade.

The first version of the rocket used NK-33 engines built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, the engines were then bought by Aerojet-Rocketdyne and modified for use on the Antares rocket. The engines were renamed the AJ-26.

Antares explodes shortly after lift-off on 5th flight (Credit: NASA)

On the rocket’s 5th mission, one of those engines failed in spectacular fashion when a liquid oxygen turbopump with manufacturing defects failed 6 seconds after liftoff, causing Antares to fall back down onto the launch pad and explode.

This set off a chain of events for U.S. launch providers as the United States banned further purchasing of Russian-made engines in December 2014, a decision that was altered just a year later to accommodate United Launch Alliance, whose Atlas V rocket uses Russian-made RD-180 engines.

Following the failure, Antares was switched over to using the RD-181 engines and thus creating the next Antares variant, the 230 series of the rocket. This version would go on to launch 12 more times before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting sanctions against Russia forced Northrup Grumman to end its reliability on the Ukrainian-built first stage and Russian engines.

In August 2022, Northrup Grumman announced they had contracted Firefly Aerospace to produce a new medium-lift rocket for the company that will be called the Antares 330. The 330 series will use 7 Miranda engines from the company. The 330 series upper stage will be the Castor 30XL solid-fueled rocket motor, with later versions using a vacuum-optimized Miranda engine to provide extra performance.

Miranda rocket engine test (Credit Firefly Aerospace)

While the Antares 330 rocket is being designed and built, Northrup Grumman has contracted SpaceX to launch 3 Cygnus resupply missions in order to fulfill their contract with NASA.

Northrup Grumman has said they expect to be able to launch the Antares 330 by Summer 2025.

The current weather outlook shows an 80% chance of acceptable conditions at lift-off. NASA will host a live stream of the launch on its YouTube page.

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Northrup Grumman’s Antares set for its swan song launch
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