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How Northrop Grumman’s new OmegA rocket stacks up to the competition

Orbital ATK, which is merging with defense giant Northrop Grumman, recently announced the development of a new launch vehicle called OmegA. Tailored for the government launch services market, the OmegA rocket will be capable of carrying payloads between 4,900 – 10,100 kg to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) in an intermediate lift configuration and between 5,250 – 7,800 kg to geostationary equatorial orbit (GEO) in a heavy-lift configuration. The first and second stages will be powered by Castor engines, the same family of engines used to boost the Space Shuttle into orbit. For the third stage, Orbital chose Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL10C engines. OmegA’s first launch is scheduled for 2021.

Orbital currently operates three classes of rockets: the converted ICBM Minotaur, the air-launched Pegasus, and the medium-lift Antares. The OmegA signifies Orbital’s–and Grumman’s–desire to enter the big leagues of the increasingly crowded but lucrative medium to heavy launch vehicle market.

Built specifically for U.S. Air Force EELV missions, the OmegA rocket is heavily dependent on funding from the U.S. government, which has already contributed significant cash to OmegA’s development.

In an effort to wean reliance off of Russian engines for critical national security launches, the Air Force will announce three launch providers under the Launch Services Agreement (LSA) this summer.

“If we don’t win the LSA phase, then we would not proceed with the vehicle as defined here. It will be some different class of vehicle, because achieving the full range of EELV mission requirements is a very expensive undertaking,” said Michael Laidley, vice president for the OmegA program at Orbital ATK told SpaceNews. “From our perspective, it’s going to look different if we don’t win the next phase.”

With ULA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Orbital all in the running, how does Orbital’s OmegA rocket match up to the competition?

United Launch Alliance (Atlas V, Vulcan)

ULA, a joint venture between Northrop’s chief rivals–Boeing and Lockheed–is developing a new rocket called Vulcan slated to launch in 2020. ULA primarily serves the U.S. government with the highly dependable but Russian powered Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. ULA has the longest and most successful track record launching highly sensitive government payloads.

However, with the push for all-American powered launchers and the entrance of SpaceX into the government market, ULA is racing to develop Vulcan. With the Vulcan, ULA is essentially swapping out the Russian RD-180 engine on the Atlas V for an American made one on the Vulcan. ULA has yet to decide between the Blue Origin BE-4 engine, which will also power Blue Origin’s forthcoming New Glenn rocket, or Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine.

ULA aims to add some features of reusability to the Vulcan to better compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The current plan is to recover the booster engines (not the main core) in the air with a helicopter. Partial reusability will make the Vulcan more cost competitive, but it is still a far cry from the Falcon 9. While cost is important, the Air Force does prioritize dependability – and with a track record like ULA’s, the Air Force is likely to award an LSA for the Vulcan.

Here’s the breakdown between ULA’s Vulcan and Orbital’s OmegA:

Vulcan (partially reusable):

Diameter: 5.4 m (18 ft)

Stages: 2 or 3

Payload to LEO 35,000 kg (78,000 lb)

Payload to GTO 16,000 kg (35,000 lb)

Payload to GEO 6,800 kg (15,000 lb)

Engines: AR1 or BE-4

Estimated cost per launch: < $100M

 

OmegA (not reusable):

Height: 59.84 metres (196.3 ft)

Diameter: 8.96 meters (29.4 ft)

Stages: 3

Payload to GTO: Intermediate: 4,900 kilograms (10,800 lb) to 10,100 kilograms (22,300 lb)

Payload to GEO: Heavy: 5,250 kilograms (11,570 lb) to 7,800 kilograms (17,200 lb)

Engines: Castor family

Estimated cost per launch: Not known

 

SpaceX (Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the most established American-powered launcher, has driven launch costs much lower with its proven reusability. The wildcard for SpaceX is the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX needs to conduct seven launches and a rigorous engineering review by the Air Force before it can launch government payloads. With demand so far tepid for the Heavy (the first commercial launch for ArabSat is scheduled for December of this year), the timeline has lengthened considerably for entrance into government service compared to previous estimates.

Here’s the breakdown between the Falcon 9, Falcon 9 Heavy, and OmegA:

Falcon 9 (partially reusable):

Stages: 2

Payload to GTO: Expendable: 8,300 kg (18,300 lb); Reusable: 5,500 kg (12,100 lb);

Payload to LEO: Expendable: 22,800 kg (50,300 lb); PAF structural limit: 10,886 kg (24,000 lb);

Estimated cost per launch: $50M

Engines: Merlin 1D

 

Falcon Heavy (partially reusable):

Height 70 m: (230 ft)

Diameter: 3.66 m (12.0 ft)

Payload to LEO: 63,800 kg (140,700 lb)[3]

Payload to GTO: 26,700 kg (58,900 lb)

Engines: Merlin 1D

Estimated cost per launch: $90M (reusable), $150M (expendable)

 

OmegA (not reusable):

Height: 59.84 metres (196.3 ft)

Diameter: 8.96 meters (29.4 ft)

Stages: 3

Payload to GTO: Intermediate: 4,900 kilograms (10,800 lb) to 10,100 kilograms (22,300 lb)

Payload to GEO: Heavy: 5,250 kilograms (11,570 lb) to 7,800 kilograms (17,200 lb)

Engines: Castor family

Estimated cost per launch: Not known

 

Blue Origin (New Glenn)

Blue Origin has indicated it is competing for the LSA with New Glenn — Blue Origin’s proposed reusable heavy-lift rocket. The first launch is scheduled for 2022. The BE-4 engine, which will power the New Glenn, could potentially be used by ULA for the Vulcan, which is also competing for an LSA award.

Here’s the breakdown between New Glenn and OmegA.

New Glenn (partially reusable):

Height: 2 stage: 86 m (283 ft)
3 stage: 99 m (326 ft)

Diameter: 7 m (23 ft)

Payload to GTO: 13,000 kg (29,000 lb)

Payload to LEO: 45,000 kg (99,000 lb)

Engines: BE-4

Estimated cost per launch: Not known

 

OmegA (not reusable):

Height: 59.84 metres (196.3 ft)

Diameter: 8.96 meters (29.4 ft)

Stages: 3

Payload to GTO: Intermediate: 4,900 kilograms (10,800 lb) to 10,100 kilograms (22,300 lb)

Payload to GEO: Heavy: 5,250 kilograms (11,570 lb) to 7,800 kilograms (17,200 lb)

Engines: Castor family

Estimated cost per launch: Not known

 

What the Air Force will consider

For the upcoming LSA awards, The Air Force must choose between three new unproven launchers — the Vulcan, New Glenn, and OmegA — and one established rocket: the Falcon 9. Out of the four launch providers bidding, only three will receive awards. While Grumman and ULA emphasize their dependability and experience in space, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is the only rocket competing for an LSA with mission success. Most likely, the Falcon 9 family — due to its launch history — and the Vulcan — as a result of ULA’s entrenchment in the national security launch market — are locks for LSA awards. That leaves the OmegA and New Glenn. The Air Force’s decision may come down to ULA’s engine choice for the Vulcan. The Air Force wants many different launchers to ensure it always has a ride to space. With ULA likely to choose Blue Origin’s BE-4 for the Vulcan, having two rockets using the same engine is redundant. And because the New Glenn is still far away from launch and not built on legacy components like the OmegA, the risk-averse Air Force will most likely defer for the time being to Grumman.

7 Comments

  1. Jacob Glassman Jacob Glassman

    SpaceX will succeed because of the brand image fronted by Musk. Blue Origin will come through as a winner too. These brands will be household names, and the others should catch on too.

    • Vince Vince

      Good point, but in the short term I agree with the author that Air Force cares more about reliability than vanity so it’ll go to ULA.

  2. Ariana K. Ariana K.

    Blue Origin.

  3. Jeremy Jeremy

    Awesome!

  4. M M

    Is Lockheed in the game?

    • Theo Nichols Theo Nichols

      Yes, through the Vulcan. United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

  5. Zander F. Zander F.

    Nice analysis. I wonder what would happen if the US selected a Russian rocket!

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