Northrop Partners With Firefly For New Antares Engine

Antares 330 cutaway.
Credit: Northrop Grumman

CAPE CANAVERAL—Northrop Grumman will partner with startup Firefly Aerospace to develop new engines for its Antares launch vehicle and a follow-on new medium-lift booster that not only would be used for NASA resupply runs to the International Space Station (ISS) but also for commercial and potential U.S. military missions.

Northrop Grumman also has purchased three rides on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to deliver its Cygnus cargo ships to the ISS between mid-2023—when Northrop plans to fly its last Antares rocket with Russian-made RD-181 engines—and late 2024, when the new re-engined Antares, known as Antares 330, is expected to debut.

Russia banned the sale of rocket engines to U.S. companies in response to trade sanctions imposed following its invasion of Ukraine in February.

United Launch Alliance (ULA), which uses Russian RD-180 engines on its Atlas V boosters, had already purchased all it needed to fulfill existing contracts. ULA plans to begin phasing in launch services aboard its new Vulcan rocket, which will be outfitted with engines manufactured by Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin, later this year or in early 2023.

Northrop Grumman, however, only had enough RD-181s for its next two Antares missions, NG-18, which is slated to launch in October, and NG-19, which is targeted to fly in the first half of 2023. “It’s a shame we can’t continue with [the  RD-181 ] but events are really outside of our control,” Kurt Eberly, director of space launch for Northrop Grumman, said in an Aerospace DAILY interview.

Prior to the RD-181 ban, Northrop Grumman had been exploring partnerships with Firefly in an effort to introduce a more competitive product into the launch market. “Antares has served its purpose very well for the space station resupply missions, but we’ve been unable to win additional business in other markets that we would like to address. So it was a strategic initiative to explore ways to be more competitive,” Eberly said.

“The invasion of Ukraine in February kind of accelerated the process,” he added. “We’re really excited to be able to announce a domestic first-stage solution for Antares that’s going to be built right here in the USA.”

The new engines, named Miranda, will use the same liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants as the RD-181s, minimizing the need for infrastructure modifications at the Antares launch site on Wallops Island, Virginia. For Antares 330,  Northrop Grumman will pair seven Miranda engines for the first stage, increasing the booster’s lift capacity. First launch is targeted for late 2024, Eberly said.

The Miranda engine also will power the first stage of a new, as-yet-unnamed medium-lift launcher that will be offered commercially via a joint Northrop-Firefly partnership.

The engine will use the same combustion cycle that Firefly developed for its Reaver 1 engines that power the first stage of the company’s Alpha small-satellite launcher. Alpha launched for the first time in September 2021, but an engine failure prevented the booster from reaching orbit. Firefly is preparing to launch its second Alpha rocket in late August or September from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Terms of the partnership with Firefly, which will produce the Miranda engines at its Briggs, Texas, facility, were not disclosed.

In addition to the Miranda engines, Northrop will leverage Firefly’s composites technology for first-stage structures and tanks.

Northrop Grumman will continue to use its existing Antares avionics and software, upper-stage structures and upper-stage solid-fuel Castor 30XL motor for the Antares 330.

For the joint, new medium-lift launcher, the companies plan to develop a more powerful first stage, a new, liquid-fueled second stage and a larger fairing.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Senior Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.