Northrop Grumman and Firefly to join forces in Antares Project

On August 8, Northrop Grumman and Firefly Aerospace announced cooperation on the development of the first stage of Northrop’s Antares launch vehicle, as well as a new medium-class rocket. 

The first stage of the new version of the rocket, called Antares 330, will be equipped with seven Miranda engines, which Firefly is developing. Also, composite materials developed by Firefly will be used for the main structure and fuel tanks of the first stage of the rocket.

The existing version of the Antares rocket. Source: Northrop Grumman

The upper part of the Antares 330 will be similar to the one currently used in the Antares design. This is a stage with a Castro 30XL solid fuel engine and with the same avionics and basic design. The launch of the new rocket is planned from Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, from where all previous Antares launches were carried out. 

“Thanks to our cooperation, we will finally develop an all-American version of our Antares rocket, the Antares 330, for the Cygnus cargo spacecraft,” said Scott Lehr, vice president and general manager of missile defense systems at Northrop.

The partnership will solve the issue of Northrop’s dependence on Ukrainian and Russian suppliers of equipment for the first stage of Antares. It is important to recall that it was the Ukrainian space heritage that became decisive in the history of Firefly Aerospace, because the company was founded by Ukrainian entrepreneur Max Poliakov in 2017. 

At that time, Max Poliakov, together with the updated Firefly team, actually created the Firefly Alpha rocket from scratch. At that time, the Ukrainian R&D office of the company worked in Dnipro (Ukraine), where the engine and launch vehicle components were developed, technological processes were worked out. This made it possible to design and launch the first Firefly Alpha rocket in just 4 years, combining the intellectual potential and developments of Ukraine and the USA.

Currently, the Yuzhnoye State Design Office and the Yuzhmash plant are producing the main design of the Antares first stage. And the stage is equipped with RD-181 engines of the Russian NPO Energomash.

The supply of engines and the first stage was in question after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Northrop representatives noted that they have received the first stages for two more Antares launches, one of which is scheduled for October. Meanwhile, the company was working on options in case the stage or engines became unavailable. However, they refused to disclose details of these backup plans until the announcement of the partnership with Firefly.

Both companies do not provide details about the financial aspects of the partnership and the time when Antares 330 is ready for launch. They stated that the Antares 330 will receive a “significantly larger” load capacity compared to the existing Antares, but did not give exact figures. 

It is expected that this partnership will also be an impetus for the development of a “completely new” medium-class launch vehicle, but details have not been disclosed. Firefly is working on its own medium-class vehicle called Beta, the first stage of which will also use the Miranda engine. This engine on a pair of oxygen + kerosene is designed to create a thrust of about 1 thousand kilonewtons. 

“Firefly is proud to be able to change the rules of the game of the new space industry, and cooperation with the pioneer of space exploration Northrop Grumman will help us continue this path,” said Peter Schumacher, interim CEO of Firefly.

The first test launch of Firefly Alpha took place in September 2021 and was deemed successful. At the beginning of 2022, the new owner of Firefly Aerospace, the AE Industrial Partners (AEI) investment fund, announced the closure of an agreement with Noosphere Venture Partners to acquire the company.

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