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Preliminary Orbital Sciences Investigation Points To Faulty Soviet-Era Engine

Preliminary Orbital Sciences Investigation Points To Faulty Soviet-Era Engine
[Photo: Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center]

Orbital Sciences will likely discontinue a Soviet-era engine that is suspected of suffering a problem resulting in the explosion of its Antares rocket last week, according to a preliminary investigation.

On Oct. 28, an unmanned Orbital Sciences rocket carrying 5,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station exploded about 15 seconds after launching from the eastern shore of Virginia.

Reviewing telemetry, video data, and debris from the rocket, the company said the evidence points to a problem that originated in or affected the turbopump in one of its two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 main engines.

The engines used in the Antares rocket were originally developed in the 1960s for a Soviet moon program that was eventually shuttered after repeated in-flight failures. GenCorp Inc. purchased and refurbished about 40 NK-33 motors, reselling them as AJ-26 engines.

“I want to stress more analysis will be required to confirm this finding is correct,” said CEO Dave Thompson in an investor conference call Wednesday morning.

To fulfill its contract with NASA, Orbital Sciences plans to purchase one to two non-Antares rockets to launch its Cygnus cargo ships in 2015 and likely 2016. In addition, the company said it will deliver the remaining cargo by consolidating the loads of five planned missions into four missions, Thompson said.