Invasion of Ukraine forces Northrop Grumman to seek US rocket alternative
The ripples from Russia's invasion of Ukraine continue to expand as Northrop Grumman announces that, in partnership with Firefly Aerospace, the war is forcing it to develop a US-designed and manufactured replacement for the first stage of its Antares rocket, which was previously made in Ukraine using Russian engines.
With the end of the Cold War in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world saw the rise of a global economy where national borders and economic boundaries seemed to become increasingly irrelevant.
One example of this was in the aerospace sector, where the previously unthinkable became commonplace as major American companies not only started using Russian rockets to launch payloads, but purchased rocket engines and even complete booster stages from Russia and former Soviet republics.
The two biggest customers were United Launch Alliance (ULA), which bought RD-180 rocket engines from Russia's NPO Energomash to power its Atlas III and V launch vehicles, and Northrop Grumman, which bought the first stage of its Antares 200 launch vehicle (powered by NPO Energomash RD-181 engines) from Ukraine's Yuzhnoye SDO and Yuzhmash.
Three decades later, this global consensus appears to be coming apart at the seams. Case in point is the war in Ukraine, the world's reaction to it, and the sanctions leveled on Russia, which has disrupted Ukraine's aerospace industry and cut off access of US aerospace firms to Russian rocket engines.
The result is that Northrop Grumman is looking for an upgraded substitute for the Antares 200, and is seeking a more secure domestic source to develop and manufacture it.
With its new partnership with Firefly Aerospace, Northrop Grumman is developing the new Antares 300 variant for the launcher's first stage. Similar to Firefly's Beta rocket now under development, the Antares 300 has a carbon composite structure and replaces the two RD-181 engines with seven liquid-fueled Miranda engines pumping out 1.6 million pounds of thrust, which is much higher than the 200-variant, allowing it to lift larger payloads.
According to Northrop Grumman, like the 200 variant, the 300 burns RP-1 and liquid oxygen, so upgrades to launch facilities will be minimal. Firefly will supply the engines and composite structures and tanks while Northrop Grumman concentrates on the avionics, software, upper-stage structures, Castor 30XL upper stage motor, vehicle integration, and launch pad operations.
"Through our collaboration, we will first develop a fully domestic version of our Antares rocket, the Antares 330, for Cygnus space station commercial resupply services, followed by an entirely new medium class launch vehicle," said Scott Lehr, vice president and general manager, launch and missile defense systems, Northrop Grumman. "Northrop Grumman and Firefly have been working on a combined strategy and technical development plan to meet current and future launch requirements."
Source: Northrop Grumman