Space

With static test complete, Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket is on track for 2021 flight

Northrop Grumman conducted a static test of their new OmegA rocket at their facility in Promontory, Utah, Feb. 27, keeping it on track for a certification flight in spring 2021.

The OmegA rocket is Northrop Grumman’s entrant in the Space Force’s competition to select the next generation of vehicles for the National Security Space Launch program, at least partly to end dependence on Russia’a RD-180 engine. Two companies are expected to be chosen and they will be awarded all of the launch contracts over a five year period. Those contracts are expected to follow a 60/40 split, with the launches scheduled to lift off between 2022 and 2026.

Along with Northrop Grumman, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance (a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that has provided the majority of national security launches since it formed in 2006) are competing for what could be a lucrative and stable source of income from the government.

The Space Force is expected to announce its decision this summer.

While SpaceX is using its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets for the competition (which have already been certified in the space launch program and has launched U.S. military satellites into orbit), the other companies have opted to design and build new rockets. Blue Origin is building the New Glenn rocket, ULA is building its Vulcan rocket, and Northrop Grumman is building OmegA. In 2018, the Air Force awarded ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman funding to develop their rockets.

Northrop Grumman’s guiding philosophy for OmegA is to keep its plan simple, reliable and affordable. The company declined to provide an estimated dollar amount that it would qualify as affordable.

Northrop Grumman is the only competitor relying on solid propellant for the first two stages, which it claims is more reliable than liquid propellant. It’s also the only fully expendable launch vehicle. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and ULA have all incorporated various levels of reusability.

One of the main features of the rocket is its Common Boost Segment, which the company developed in partnership with the Air Force. Approximately 31 ft tall and 12 ft in diameter, the segments are essentially stacked on top of each other to achieve the thrust needed to place payloads on orbit. The intermediate variant uses two segments for the first stage with a third on top for the second stage. By adding segments to the first stage and using an elongated structure on top, the rocket can be adjusted to accommodate heavier payloads.

On Feb. 27, Northrop Grumman conducted a static phase for the second stage of the OmegA rocket.

During a static test, the rocket is essentially laid on its side and kept in place while the motor is fired. While less dynamic than a launch, the fiery static test provides essential data to the manufacturer, ensuring that all systems and components work as expected.

The static test for the first stage was conducted in May. While the test was deemed successful, some viewers were surprised when the nozzle burst into debris at the tail end of the test.

“We learned some things,” acknowledged Burke Williams, program manager for the OmegA Common Boost Segment. “It was basically a ground phenomenon. If it had flown in space, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Essentially, the problem was caused by the unique conditions of the static test. Post-analysis showed it was a ground test phenomenon caused by atmospheric pressure, meaning it didn’t impact the rocket’s certification.

“Everything else performed perfectly,” said Williams.

Testing was visually smoother at the Feb. 27 static test of the second stage, where the motor fired for full-duration, approximately 140 seconds. During that brief period, the engine burned through 340,000 pounds of solid propellant, producing upwards of 785,000 pounds of thrust. Northrop Grumman paid for the travel of Defense News to attend the event.

The static test appeared to go according to plan, Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems, told media following the event.

“I just talked to program managers that were in the bunker, and thrust trace looks really good, the time of burn looks really good, the nozzle vectoring was spot on, so so far preliminary data looks exactly like we were wanting them to look,” said Precourt.

However, it will take time before the company can fully determine whether the test was a success, he noted. As the flame dies down at the end of the test, equipment moved in quickly to cool down the rocket, preserving its state immediately following the test. Over the next month to two months, researchers will dissect components of the rocket and analyze the troves of data collected during the test to ensure it functioned correctly.

“There’s a lot of work yet to go to validate that our predictions came through,” said Precourt.

Two more static tests are scheduled for OmegA under its contract, though both will occur after the two certification flights.

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