Rancho Cordova’s Aerojet Rocketdyne played a critical role in Friday’s successful launch and re-entry of NASA’s Orion spaceship.
The unmanned flight launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., was needed to test systems that will ultimately take astronauts farther into space than has ever been attempted, including to Mars and near-Earth asteroids.
Aerojet sites throughout the country, including Rancho Cordova, provided propulsion systems for the rocket and the crew module. The latter will hold astronauts during flight and re-entry to Earth once manned missions are attempted in the 2020s.
“Everything worked perfectly,” said Sam Wiley, director for human space at Aerojet. “It was one of those things where we kept hearing reports and everything was right on the numbers.”
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The successful mission was good news for Aerojet, coming as it did after an Oct. 28 explosion of the unmanned Antares rocket, whose Russian-made, 1960s-era rocket engines were tested, modified and supplied by the Rancho Cordova aerospace firm. The Antares rocket blew up in a fiery nighttime explosion seconds after launch on a cargo resupply flight bound for the International Space Station.
An analysis by the Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., which launched the ship, suggested that a turbopump-related failure in one of two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 stage-one engines was likely to blame for the explosion. In May, an AJ-26 engine failed during testing.
Aerojet officials declined comment Friday on the Antares explosion. Aerojet Rocketdyne is owned by GenCorp Inc.
Friday’s launch, in contrast, went off with no major problems. None of the engines in the Orion mission is the kind used in Antares.
Orion lifted off at 4:05 a.m. under the power of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV heavy rocket. That rocket was powered by three Aerojet RS-68 engines.
Aerojet’s Orion’s Launch Abort System also performed as planned, Wiley said.
The Rancho Cordova arm of Aerojet designed the jettison system, which consists of three rocket motors on the crew module. The rockets are designed to pull the crew module away from the launch vehicle in case of an emergency.
The crew module splash-landed four hours after launch in the Pacific Ocean 270 miles west of Baja California, Mexico.
One of the most challenging phases of the flight was re-entry of the crew module. Aerojet designed and tested a series of 12 thrusters for the craft.
The thrusters are a crucial component of getting the module back to Earth safely. The successful operation of the thrusters allowed the crew module to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at the right pitch. The right pitch of the module set up re-entry at 20,000 mph in which the module withstood 4,000-degree heat before splashdown.
“It was a bull’s-eye return,” Wiley said.
It was the fastest re-entry by any NASA spaceship since the Apollo lunar missions, he said.
“Right now, what we have is a good indication that the path that we have laid out for Orion is executable to get deep-space flight,” said Cheryl Rehm, Orion program manager at Aerojet. “This is a big step on our path to Mars.”
The success of the mission allows NASA to move forward on plans for its next Orion launch in 2017. That mission will also be unmanned but will include the rollout of a new rocket launch system, called the Space Launch System.
The success of that mission would lead to the first manned flight of Orion, with a crew of four astronauts, slated for launch in 2021.
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.