Battlespace tech

ATK enters competition to replace Russian rocket engine

ATK booster shuttle launch

ATK’s solid-rocket boosters have been used to launch the shuttle and other heavy payloads.

ATK, the aerospace company that supplied solid-rocket boosters for the U.S. space shuttle program, is entering the competition to replace the Russian-made engine on the Atlas V rocket used to launch most U.S. military satellites.

The proposed solid-rocket motors would replace the RD-180 liquid-fueled engines now used in the Atlas V first stage. ATK Aerospace Group, Arlington, Va., will compete with the team of United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin, the aerospace startup backed by founder Jeff Bezos.

The ULA-Blue Origin team is proposing the BE-4 rocket engine that uses liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas as propellants, generating 550,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Two engines would be needed for each ULA booster.

ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The company's near monopoly on military satellite launches has been challenged by another commercial competitor, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., due to ULA’s reliance on the Russian RD-180 engine.

ATK was responding to solicitation issued by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center last year for development of a new engine to replace the RD-180.

The company already supplies solid-rocket engines used on heavier configurations of ULA's Atlas V and Delta IV rockets used to launch classified National Reconnaissance Office satellites and NASA payloads exploring the solar system.

ATK's pitch is that solid-rocket motors are more reliable and deliver greater thrust for less money. Beyond that, it has released few details about any new technologies it would incorporate into a replacement engine other than to note that it would use manufacturing facilities in the U.S.

Its solid-rocket motors along with the space shuttle's main engine delivered about 6.5 million pounds of thrust. "Solid rocket motors are optimal for first-stage performance as they provide high lift-off thrust, allowing for more payload margin," ATK claimed in a statement. "They also require less ground and launch infrastructure, resulting in fewer launch scrubs."

ATK is supplying the massive solid-rocket boosters to be used on NASA heavy-lift Space Launch System intended to take humans beyond Earth orbit. They would be the largest solid-rocket boosters ever to carry humans into space. The first SLS mission is scheduled for 2018.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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