Orbital ATK to supply boosters for ULA's Atlas V, Vulcan

ULA concept for Vulcan

An artist's rendition of ULA's next-generation Vulcan rocket.

The competition to win future U.S. military satellite launch contracts heated up again this week when embattled United Launch Alliance expanded a partnership with Orbital ATK to provide solid rocket boosters for ULA's Atlas V and future Vulcan launchers.

The deal calls for Orbital ATK, formed earlier this year with the merger of Orbital Sciences Corp. and Alliant Techsystems, to design and qualify two new rocket motors based on similar designs. The partners said the parallel designs would help reduce the cost of launching U.S. satellites as ULA competes with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) for Air Force contracts under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

Development of the new solid rocket boosters will begin immediately, the partners said. They would be used on Atlas V launches beginning in late 2018, ULA said, and on its new Vulcan rocket scheduled for its maiden flight in mid-2019.

Vulcan would replace ULA's Atlas and Delta rockets now used to loft most military payloads. Vulcan would be powered by a U.S.-made BE-4 rocket engine currently under development with commercial startup Blue Origin. Vulcan incorporates a modular approach that would enable reuse of the booster main engines, the most expensive component on the first stage. ULA has proposed a "mid-air capture" technique to recover Vulcan’s first stages, which would then be refurbished for later flights.

The solid motor booster agreement announced Tuesday expands a partnership between ULA and Orbital ATK that already includes supplying composite structures, nozzles, propellant tanks and booster separation motors for the current versions of Delta IV and Atlas V rockets.

ULA also said it would supply two Atlas rockets to launch Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft on cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station, scheduled for late 2015 and early 2016. Orbital ATK is also developing an integrated third stage to launch NASA’s Solar Probe Plus mission on ULA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket in 2018.

Both ULA and SpaceX are attempting to reduce the high cost of expendable rockets as they compete for commercial and military launch contracts. Along with a reusable main engine, ULA CEO Tory Bruno had said the Vulcan initiative would eventually include a new upper stage that would replace the current Centaur second stage. ULA said the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage would be capable of executing "almost unlimited burns," which the company claimed could extend on-orbit operating time from hours to weeks.

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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