Northrop Grumman and Firefly Aerospace are teaming up to build a new first stage for Northrop’s Antares rocket, as well as a new medium lift booster. The newly announced partnership means that Northrop will no longer have to rely on Russia and Ukraine for Antares, and will instead turn to building an all-American version for future launches.
“Through our collaboration, we will first develop a fully domestic version of our Antares rocket, the Antares 330, for Cygnus space station commercial resupply services,” Scott Lehr, vice president and general manager of launch and missile defense systems at Northrop Grumman, said in a statement on Monday.
The Antares 330 will be equipped with Firefly’s Miranda engines, as well as Firefly’s composites for the first stage’s structures and fuel tanks. As for Northrop, the company will provide upper-stage structures and the Castor 30XL motor, in addition to software, vehicle integration, and launch pad operations. The rocket’s new design is meant to enhance its payload capacity, according to the company.
Northrop’s Antares rocket, used for launching cargo missions to the International Space Station, was previously constructed in Ukraine and is equipped with Russian RD-181 engines. The fate of Antares had been in question since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February and the subsequent sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries. In March, Russia halted its rocket engine supply to the U.S. in retaliation to the sanctions. “Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks,” former head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency Dmitry Rogozin was quoted as saying at the time.
Despite the Russian cutoff, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman possesses two engines it can use for its Antares rocket, the first of which is scheduled to launch in October and the second next year. To fill the gap between the last available engine and the new Antares model being built, Northrop has booked three SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches for its Cygnus spacecraft, Kurt Eberly, director of space launch programs at Northrop Grumman, told SpaceNews.
Aside from providing new engines for Antares, the new partnership also aims to build a new medium-lift launch vehicle, the details of which aren’t yet known. Texas-based Firefly Aerospace has yet to complete a successful launch of its own medium-lift vehicle, called Alpha. One of the rocket’s engines unexpectedly shut down shortly after its inaugural liftoff in September 2021, and Alpha ended up in flames.
That said, the company is understandably hopeful about its new relationship with Northrop. “Firefly prides itself on being a disrupter in the new space industry and collaborating with a proven space pioneer like Northrop Grumman will help us continue that disruption,” Peter Schumacher, interim CEO for Firefly, said in a statement.