Northrop Grumman's OmegA rocket is under development for a first launch in spring of 2021. Image courtesy of Northrop Grumman
ORLANDO, Fla., April 27 (UPI) -- Defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. is on schedule for testing of its next-generation rocket, the OmegA, despite the challenges of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, a company executive said.
Northrop's OmegA program is the company's entry in a four-way competition with SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance to provide new launch services for military satellites.
"We're fortunate to be in a position where we can keep working, despite some problems with obtaining materials from our supply chain," Charlie Precourt, Northrop's vice president and general manager of propulsion systems, said in an interview last week.
Northrop employees in Utah are assembling the rocket while wearing protective gear. They also have built mock-ups of the rocket's components to test shipment and reception of the hardware at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Northrop workers modified part of NASA's huge Vehicle Assembly Building to accommodate the new rocket. They also renovated one of NASA's three mobile launch platforms to fit the OmegA rocket while rolling to the launch pad.
"We have sent everyone home that can work from home -- all those who work with computer software and systems," Precourt said. "Those who have to operate the heavy equipment on-site are taking precautions."
Northrop Grumman reported in March that an employee in Florida tested positive for COVID-19, but that was at its office campus in Melbourne, about 40 miles south of the space center. The company did not answer questions about virus tests among the OmegA team.
Spring launch planned
Development of the rocket must continue if Northrop is going to make a spring 2021 launch date for the rocket's first mission.
Colorado-based Saturn Satellite Networks selected the OmegA to launch up to two satellites on the rocket's inaugural flight from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39B, Northrop announced in December.
OmegA's first stage consists of solid rocket boosters, which Northrop says draw on decades of similar technology used on the space shuttle and Minuteman missiles.
United Launch Alliance is developing the Vulcan rocket, while Blue Origin builds the New Glenn. SpaceX has launched military satellites with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.
New rocket systems are required because Congress has outlawed the future use of Russian-made engines on rockets for military missions, and many such missions launched on ULA's Atlas rockets use Russian engines.
Power, size can vary
The OmegA is designed to carry military satellites and to be flexible in terms of power and size, depending on the demands of the mission.
The height of the rocket would vary from 210 feet tall in standard or intermediate configuration to 310 feet for the OmegA Heavy -- which would have an additional first-stage solid booster. Strap-on solid boosters could provide additional power.
The first launch is expected during spring 2021 in the intermediate configuration, according to Northrop. The intermediate rocket would produce 2.7 million pounds of thrust, weigh 1.45 million pounds and carry a payload volume equivalent to 10 large pickup trucks.
By comparison, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket produces 1.7 million pounds of thrust at takeoff, and the Falcon Heavy tops out at just over 5.1 million pounds of thrust.
Northrop said using existing facilities in its Utah manufacturing plant and at Kennedy Space Center in Florida help keep costs down.
Precourt said Northrop workers continue to modify one of NASA's three mobile launch platforms to accommodate the OmegA system.
Working from home
NASA employees usually based at the space center in Florida are working from home, except for essential workers, during the pandemic. Workers who remain at the center, including those with Northrop, are taking precautions, Precourt said.
"It turns out where we're at a point in the program, in Florida, that didn't require any NASA personnel for the actual work -- only for the usual security they provide," Precourt said.
"The work is mostly on very large-scale cranes and hardware, where people are naturally distanced. They are also wearing masks and gloves whenever possible," he said.
In NASA's firing control room, which oversees launches, Northrop workers continue to fine-tune software, and some of that is done remotely, Precourt said.
"Some access will be required when we get closer to test launches, but hopefully we'll be emerging from the pandemic conditions by then," he said. "We're still looking at being done by the fall, so we can start rehearsals."
Northrop is prepared to ship mock-ups of the rocket's stages to the space center from Utah in May, Precourt said. Crews will use those so-called pathfinder models to rehearse processing rocket components for a rapid turnaround to launch.
According to Northrop, OmegA would be capable of 10 launches per year, but the program could remain financially viable with as few as three per year.
Two systems will win
The Air Force (now Space Force) Space and Missile Systems Center announced in 2019 that it would accept only two of the four rocket systems under development, at some point in 2020.
Northrop received $792 million to continue the development of OmegA. That was part of $2.3 billion in rocket development contracts in 2018 that also went to Blue Origin and ULA. SpaceX, which has certified rockets and contracts for such launches, didn't get money during that award.
The OmegA program is part of an industry-wide retirement and replacement of veteran launch vehicles, said Leena Pivovarova, space analyst with Northern Sky Research in New York City.
Pivovarova noted that Northrop has dealt with cost overruns in recent programs, such as the James Webb Space Telescope. Northrop is the main contractor on the telescope, which has seen project costs increase by 95 percent since 2009, according to a report from the watchdog Government Accountability Office.
"Northrop Grumman is working toward addressing the [historically] high price tag of its launchers," Pivovarova said. "To remain competitive in this changing market, all players are looking to reduce costs."
Supply chain woes
Pivovarova said the entire space industry is suffering supply chain problems during the pandemic, but she didn't have immediate insight into the OmegA rocket development schedule.
In response to questions about OmegA's costs and budget, the company provided a statement that said, "Since we are in the middle of a competition, we aren't able to share competitive cost information."
The solid rocket boosters on OmegA, as opposed to the more common liquid propellant, are a selling point in Northrop's plan, said Chris Quilty, a space industry analyst with Quilty Analytics, based in St. Petersburg, Fla.
That's because keeping solid rocket technology and supply chains strong is important to the Department of Defense, since that is what many missile systems also rely on, he said.
"ULA has a long tradition of launching for the military and a strong lobbying effort," Quilty said of Northrop's competition. "The solid rocket booster industry ... is important for the maintenance of our missile defense systems that also use solid rocket boosters."