Last Russian rocket-powered Antares 230+ to blast off today

Today closes a chapter on the history of the Antares rocket series with the last mission to be propelled using Russian-made RD-181 engines.
Christopher McFadden
Image of an Antares 230+ ready for launch.

Northrop Grumman  

The last Antares 230+ rocket will blast off later today from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island in Virginia, ARS Technica reports. It will carry the latest Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo spacecraft destined to resupply the International Space Station. The mission forms part of a firm-fixed-price contractual arrangement with NASA. The mission, NG-19, will bring a close to over a decade of using Russian rockets on the Antares series of launch vehicles for Northrop Grumman and NASA.

The first core structures and propellant systems for Antares 230+ are currently produced by Yuzhmash State Enterprise in Dnipro, Ukraine. Russian manufacturer Energomash currently supplies the RD-181 engines for the first stage.

End of an era

The reason? The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Following the invasion imposed sanctions, reports Space Flight Insider, in February 2022, have significantly reduced ties between Western companies and the Russian industry. This has also led to declining political support for such partnerships. Although it has caused tension between the United States and Russia in the International Space Station (ISS) program, there are no indications of the program being discontinued until at least 2030.

Since then, Northrop Grumman has recognized its reliance on foreign suppliers and sought a domestic partner to resolve this serious problem. And so, in August 2022, the company announced a new partnership with Firefly Aerospace to create a domestic equivalent of the rocket. Space Flight Insider explains this strategic move minimizes vulnerability to global political changes and enables the company to compete for contracts with the Department of Defense.

Northrop Grumman's planned replacement rocket is the Antares 330 will be powered by seven of Firefly's "Miranda" engines and will utilize their composite technology for constructing the first-stage structures and tanks. It will also use the same fuel as its predecessor.

Northrop Grumman will provide reliable avionics and software, upper-stage structures, and the Castor 30XL motor. They will also provide vital expertise in vehicle assembly and launch pad procedures.

SpaceX will help

According to some reports, the domestically-produced Antares 330 rocket could debut by the end of 2024. Until then, Northrop Grumman has acquired three SpaceX Falcon 9 launches to fill in the transitional service gap of the Antares program. This move will ensure the uninterrupted delivery of Cygnus space station cargo with minimal disruption.

To date, Cygnus has successfully delivered roughly 130,000 pounds (59,000 kilograms) of crucial supplies, equipment, and scientific experiments to the crew of the International Space Station. The development of the Antares 330 will ensure this continues for the foreseeable future.

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