Orbital to Consolidate Cygnus Launch Manifest and Outsource at Least One Launch

©NASA

Grabbing a Cygnus

Moving quickly to inform its International Space Station (ISS) resupply contract partner NASA, Orbital Sciences Corporation today announced that not only would it complete its resupply contract by the end of 2016, it would consolidate its launch manifest and do it with four launches instead of five.

It was only a week ago that the Orbital Antares launch with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft came crashing down only seconds after launch.

Orbital said preliminary evidence and analysis conducted points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 stage one main engines. With this finding Orbital stated that they will "likely" discontinue the use of the AJ-26.

Going forward Orbital's plan is twofold. It will outsource one, perhaps two launches to another company to launch the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS. Currently Orbital is considering two U.S. companies and one European. They would not elaborate on who those companies are but since there are only two U.S. options we know that they are considering SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA). Of the two options, SpaceX would most likely be the cheaper option based on published pricing. The European option could include launching on a Arianespace Soyuz from French Guiana. According to Orbital all of the options have launch availability from the second quarter of 2015 onward.

The second part of the plan is to push forward the debut of the upgraded Antares medium-class launcher from 2017 to 2016. Orbital has already selected the new engines for the Antares propulsion system upgrade but won't release that information with an ongoing competition for future resupply missions to the ISS. However it has already been reported by the Russian media to be the new Russian RD-193 engines.

Orbital will consolidate its manifest from five launches to four by using the larger Cygnus cargo spacecraft which can accommodate approximately 3300 kilograms.

Orbital also expects repairs to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) launch complex at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility to be completed by the beginning in 2016 allowing launches to resume.

"Orbital is taking decisive action to fulfill our commitments to NASA in support of safe and productive operations of the Space Station. 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. 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," said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

Today's announcement, along with two recent conference calls for financial analysts and investors is meant to reassure NASA, its investors and presumably ATK that Orbital has the situation under control and is moving forward with a coherent plan. Orbital is currently completing a merger with ATK (Alliant Techsystems Inc).

Orbital's stock is higher today by almost 3.5%, trading at $26.01 but has yet to regain the ground it lost last week when it was trading at $30.29 prior to the accident.

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