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Cygnus cargo ship flies to space station

Antares launch
Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket lifts off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, sending a robotic Cygnus cargo capsule into orbit. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Almost four tons of supplies, hardware and science payloads are heading to the International Space Station after today’s launch of a robotic Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo ship.

The spacecraft, dubbed the SS Roger Chaffee in honor of one of the astronauts killed in the 1967 Apollo 1 launch-pad fire, was sent into orbit from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast at 4:46 p.m. ET (1:46 p.m. PT) atop Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket. The afternoon launch could be seen from a wide area of the East Coast’s mid-Atlantic region.

Cygnus’ 7,600-pound shipment includes experiments aimed at manufacturing high-quality optical fiber in zero-gravity, as well as nanoparticles that could someday be used for drug delivery. A host of nanosatellites are on board and due for deployment either from the space station or from the cylindrical Cygnus craft itself.

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Cygnus cargo ship heads to space station

Cygnus launch
Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket rises from its launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

Two uncrewed cargo craft are now en route to the International Space Station, thanks to the launch of a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spaceship atop an Antares rocket.

Liftoff came right on time at 4:01 a.m. ET (1:01 a.m. PT) today at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. NASA said the Antares’ ascent should have been visible from a stretch of America’s East Coast ranging from Massachusetts to the Carolinas, given acceptable weather conditions and viewing elevation.

A round of applause could be heard at Wallops’ launch control center when spacecraft separation was announced.

The rocket’s red glare came less than 15 hours after Russia’s robotic Progress spaceship began its trip to the space station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The close timing was the result of a couple of weather-caused delays for the Cygnus launch. The Progress is due to rendezvous with the station on Nov. 18, followed by the Cygnus’ arrival on Nov. 19.

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Air Force backs three new kinds of rockets

Jeff Bezos and New Glenn
Jeff Bezos shows off the concept for the New Glenn orbital rocket during a Florida news conference in 2015. (Blue Origin Photo)

The U.S. Air Force says Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance have won its go-ahead for the development of new rockets that could be used for national security launches — a boost that could eventually add up to billions of dollars.

Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, was awarded a launch service agreement for its New Glenn rocket, which is due to be launched from Florida starting in 2021. The agreement provides for as much as $500 million through 2024, but Blue Origin is expected to contribute to a cost-sharing arrangement.

Through its recently acquired Orbital ATK subsidiary, Northrop Grumman won a $791.6 million agreement with similar terms for its OmegA launch system. ULA, meanwhile, won a $967 million agreement for its Vulcan Centaur rocket. The Vulcan is currently set for first launch in 2020, with two Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engines powering its first-stage booster. OmegA is to enter service in 2021.

Each of the companies will be getting $109 million in funds from fiscal year 2018.

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Small-satellite plans soar, but few end up flying

The latest “State of the Industry” report for small orbital-class launch vehicles tracks 101 reported efforts to create such rockets, compared with a mere 31 in 2015. But many of those efforts are defunct or in limbo, Northrop Grumman’s Carlos Niederstrasser said today at the SmallSat Conference in Logan, Utah. “We’re definitely starting to see attrition” in the industry, he said.

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Report: Satellite loss blamed on Northrop Grumman

Investigators have tentatively concluded that January’s loss of a U.S. spy satellite code-named Zuma was due to problems with a payload adapter that was provided by the satellite’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, rather than the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle, The Wall Street Journal reported today.

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Aerospace heavyweights strike $7.8B deal

Image: Northrop Grumman ad
Northrop Grumman is known for stealth airplanes such as the B-2 bomber, the X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle and the B-21 long-range strike bomber. (Northrop Grumman Photo)

Northrop Grumman’s purchase of Orbital ATK for $7.8 billion will create a company involved in projects ranging from America’s next stealth bomber and ballistic missile system to the International Space Station and the James Webb Space Telescope.

The deal, previewed in news reports over the weekend and announced today, is part of a trend toward greater consolidation in the defense and aerospace industry.

Virginia-based Orbital ATK itself was part of that trend back in 2014, when it was formed through the merger of Orbital Sciences Corp. and Alliant Techsystems’ aerospace and defense groups. More recently, United Technologies announced its $30 billion acquisition of Rockwell Collins, including the combination of the companies’ aerospace operations to create a new business unit.

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GAO shoots down challenge to bomber deal

Image: Shrouded airplane
A shrouded airplane takes center stage in a Northrop Grumman TV commercial. The company’s Long Range Strike Bomber is similarly shrouded in mystery. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

The Government Accountability Office ruled that Northrop Grumman won the U.S. Air Force’s contract for the Long Range Strike Bomber fair and square, and turned back a protest of the decision by the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin.

The next-generation stealth bomber is meant to replace the Air Force’s decades-old B-1 and B-52 bombers starting in the 2020s. The contract could bring as much as $80 billion to Northrop and its subcontractors.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin lost out in the competition, and in November the two companies filed a protest saying that the Defense Department’s selection process didn’t properly weigh all the risks and comparative advantages. After reviewing the record, the GAO denied the protest on Feb. 16, clearing the way for Northrop to resume work on the project.

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Boeing and Lockheed protest bomber snub

Image: Northrop Grumman ad
Northrop Grumman has been given an Air Force contract to build the Long Range Strike Bomber – a concept that was touted in a Super Bowl ad. (Northrop Grumman photo)

Boeing and Lockheed Martin say they’ve filed a formal protest of last month’s Pentagon decision to award a bomber contract worth as much as $80 billion to a competitor, Northrop Grumman.

The stealthy Long Range Strike Bomber is scheduled for deployment in the 2020s as a replacement for the Air Force’s decades-old B-1 and B-52 bombers. The Boeing-Lockheed team and Northrop Grumman both put in proposals, and both teams saw the contract as crucial for their long-term military business.

The Air Force made its selection using a mostly classified process, and announced the award to Northrop Grumman on Oct. 27. In today’s statement, Boeing and Lockheed Martin said the process was “fundamentally flawed.”

“The cost evaluation performed by the government did not properly reward the contractors’ proposals to break the upward-spiraling historical cost curves of defense acquisitions, or properly evaluate the relative or comparative risk of the competitors’ ability to perform, as required by the solicitation,” the companies said.

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