Aerojet engine wins a place on Vulcan rocket

Aerojet RL10 rocket engine
Aerojet Rocketdyne has successfully tested a full-scale, 3-D-printed thrust chamber assembly for its workhorse RL10 rocket engine. (Aerojet Rocketdyne Photo)

United Launch Alliance has chosen Aerojet Rocketdyne over Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture to provide the upper-stage rocket engine for its next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle.

But the suspense continues in the bigger contest to provide the more powerful first-stage engines.

Aerojet’s RL10 engine had been considered the favorite to power ULA’s Vulcan Centaur upper stage, which is to be used when the Vulcan makes its debut in 2020.

For more than 50 years, the hydrogen-fueled RL10 has been a mainstay of the Centaur, which came into play most recently last weekend when it powered NASA’s Mars InSight lander out of Earth orbit.

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Bigelow and ULA plan outpost in lunar orbit

Lunar depot
An artist’s conception shows a Bigelow B330 expandable module in lunar orbit, with United Launch Alliance’s ACES propulsion stage attached. (Bigelow Aerospace Illustration)

NASA is shifting its attention to the moon, and so are Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance: Today the two companies said they’d work together to put an outpost in orbit around the moon by as soon as 2022.

The plan builds on the companies’ earlier partnership to send one of Bigelow’s B330 expandable space modules into Earth orbit.

Now the idea is to launch a B330 into low Earth orbit on ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle, get it outfitted as a platform for lunar-orbit operations and send up 70 tons of propellant on two Vulcans. Then ULA’s Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage would fuel up, attach itself to the B330 and push onward to the moon.

Billionaire Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, said the lunar station could play a role in NASA’s plans to establish a moon base and move on to Mars.

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Liftoff sends Cygnus cargo ship into orbit

Cygnus-Atlas liftoff
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket flashes to life on its Cape Canaveral launch pad, sending Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo capsule on the first leg of its journey to the International Space Station. (NASA TV)

Today’s launch of a robotic Cygnus cargo craft to the International Space Station was totally successful. But the first-ever live 360-degree video stream of a rocket launch? Not so much.

The good news is that more than 7,600 pounds of supplies and experiments are now on their way to the station aboard Orbital ATK’s cylindrical transport ship, which is named the S.S. John Glenn in honor of the late space pioneer and senator.

Among the payloads are more than three dozen nanosatellites and a new habitat for growing plants in the station’s weightless conditions, plus experiments to facilitate growing cell cultures and test anti-cancer drugs that activate the body’s own immune system. There’s also the latest in a series of experiments to study how things burn up in space.

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ULA’s chief sizes up the rocket engine race

Image: Tory Bruno
United Launch Alliance’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno, talks with students during the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – United Launch Alliance’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno, is facing a 2019 deadline from Congress to come up with a made-in-the-USA replacement for the Russian-built rocket engines currently used on ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 launch vehicle. But he doesn’t sound worried. He’s got a Plan A, and a Plan B.

“We’re in that great position of having the two to choose from,” Bruno told GeekWire this week here at the 32nd Space Symposium.

Plan A is a rocket engine that’s being built by Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and headquartered in Kent, Wash. Nineteen months ago, Bezos and Bruno announced a deal to support the development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, fueled by liquid natural gas, for ULA’s next-generation Vulcan semi-reusable rocket.

Bruno said Bezos is putting up the “lion’s share” of the money for the effort, and in February, the U.S. Air Force provided an additional $46.6 million boost.

But then there’s Plan B: Aerojet Rocketdyne – which is based in Sacramento, Calif., but has a facility in Redmond, Wash. – is getting $115 million from the Air Force to develop a kerosene-fueled engine called the AR-1 that could serve as an alternative for ULA’s rockets.

United Launch Alliance, a Colorado-based joint venture involving the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, will soon have to pick which plan to go with. It’s not a decision Bruno takes lightly.

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Supersized space module set for 2020 launch

B330 module
An artist’s conception shows the B330 space module in Earth orbit. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

DENVER – Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance have announced a plan to launch Bigelow’s B330 expandable space module aboard an Atlas 5 rocket in 2020, to serve as a destination for commercial operations in orbit.

Today’s announcement at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., came just one day after a much smaller test module – the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM – arrived at the International Space Station. Over the next two years, NASA will test the BEAM to learn how well the stretched-out room stands up to the harsh space environment.

Bigelow Aerospace’s founder, real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow, said the B330 may end up docked to the station as well. The module would add 330 cubic meters to the station’s habitable volume, which is 20 times the volume of the BEAM when fully expanded. The B330 would boost the station’s current pressurized volume by 30 percent.

Put another way, the B330 is the equivalent of a two-bedroom apartment, as opposed to the bedroom-sized BEAM. Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO, quipped that the B330 will be “bigger than my first apartment.”

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Cygnus cargo ship hooks up to space station

Image: Cygnus capture
The International Space Station’s robotic arm reaches out to grapple Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo ship in a video view with an overlay of computer data. (Credit: NASA TV)

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus commercial cargo ship had a smooth link-up with the International Space Station on March 26, delivering about 7,500 pounds of supplies, equipment, experiments and high-tech gizmos. But a rocket glitch that cropped up while putting the Cygnus into orbit has led United Launch Alliance to postpone the next scheduled liftoff of its Atlas 5 rocket.

The good news is that the Atlas 5’s anomalous rocket engine performance on March 22 had no impact on Cygnus’ sendoff. The uncrewed capsule made its rendezvous right on time, and astronauts used the station’s robotic arm to bring it in for its berthing.

Over the next two months, crew members will unload Cygnus’ cargo – including a 3-D printer, a meteor-watching experiment and tons of more mundane items. Then they’ll fill it back up with trash and send it loose to burn up during atmospheric re-entry. During the descent, mission managers will use an experimental apparatus to set a fire inside the capsule and study how the flames spread.

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Cygnus heads for space station with cool gizmos

Image: Atlas launch with Cygnus
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifts off, sending Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo capsule into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Credit: NASA)

Orbital ATK’s commercial Cygnus cargo capsule was lofted into orbit tonight atop an Atlas 5 rocket, carrying an upgraded 3-D printer, a gecko-type gripper, a fire-starting experiment and tons of other supplies to the International Space Station.

The launch vehicle made an on-time departure from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 p.m. ET (8:05 p.m. PT). If all goes according to plan, astronauts will grapple the uncrewed Cygnus spacecraft with the station’s robotic arm and pull it in to its berthing port on the Unity node on Saturday.

This will be Orbital ATK’s fourth delivery to the station under the terms of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA, and the second to make use of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. Orbital ATK had to turn to the Atlas when its own Antares rocket blew up shortly after launch in October 2014, destroying a Cygnus shipment. A redesigned Antares is expected to make its debut later this spring.

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Blue Origin, ULA and Aerojet strike rocket deals

Image: BE-4 engine test
Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine goes through staged combustion testing. (Credit: ULA)

Blue Origin, the rocket venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is among the beneficiaries in a set of Air Force contracts aimed at developing U.S.-made replacements for the Russian-made engines that currently power many of America’s space missions.

One of the contracts announced today is going to United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin’s partner in the BE-4 rocket engine development effort. The Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center said the BE-4 project would receive an initial investment of $46.6 million. Another $800,000 would go toward development of the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES.

ULA plans to use Blue Origin’s methane-fueled BE-4 engine on its next-generation Vulcan rocket, which is designed to be partially reusable. The ACES propulsion system would eventually be used on the Vulcan’s upper stage.

Blue Origin has its headquarters in Kent, Wash., and much of the company’s rocket development work was done there. Engine testing already has started at Blue Origin’s West Texas operation. The two companies say development of the BE-4 is fully funded by Blue Origin, with investment by ULA.

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Atlas 5 rocket sends cargo ship to space station

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket rises from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sunday, sending an uncrewed Orbital ATK Cygnus commercial cargo capsule to the International Space Station. Two Microsoft HoloLens headsets were aboard. (Credit: NASA TV)

After waiting out Florida’s weather for three days, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lofted supplies to the International Space Station today for the first time ever.

The Atlas rose from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:44 p.m. ET (1:44 p.m. PT), sending Orbital ATK’s uncrewed Cygnus crew capsule into orbit. The space station’s commander, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, watched the launch from orbit.

Among the record-setting 7,700 pounds’ worth of supplies, experiments and hardware on board are two of Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented-reality headsets. Once they arrive, the station’s astronauts will try them out as wearable aids for in-space operations.

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SpaceX leads in launch competition, by default

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the DSCOVR satellite in February. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is poised to win an Air Force national security launch contract by default because its archrival, United Launch Alliance, has dropped out of the competition.

ULA said this week that it decided not to bid on the Air Force contract for launching a GPS-3 satellite in 2018, leaving SpaceX as the sole bidder. The contract was the first of its kind to come up since the Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security payloads.

Reuters quoted ULA’s chief executive officer, Tory Bruno, as saying that the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture couldn’t submit a compliant bid because of a federally mandated ban on the use of Russian-built RD-180 engines for national security launches. ULA uses the RD-180s on the first stage of its Atlas 5 rocket, which has traditionally been used for such launches. A defense authorization bill currently under consideration in Congress includes a provision that would give ULA access to four more of the engines, but that bill has not yet been signed into law.

Bruno also told Reuters that the criteria for bid selection don’t give ULA enough credit for its record of reliability and schedule certainty, and that the accounting procedures for separating the funds for GPS-3 from other government contracts were too onerous.

Monday was the deadline for submitting a bid for the GPS-3 launch. SpaceX declined to comment on the prospects for the contract, which is thought to be worth in the neighborhood of $70 million to $80 million.

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