Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

Three companies are competing to supply the next generation of NASA sounding rocket. Incumbent supplier Bristol Aerospace faces competition from Astrotech Space Operations and Lockheed Martin. The winner will be chosen in October.


NASA operates a range of Black Brant sounding rockets for sub-orbital missions. These are made by Bristol, a subsidiary of Canada's Magellan Aerospace. Last year, Litton PRC was awarded a contract to operate NASA's sounding rockets, and launched a contract to select a second-generation system.


Competing against an improved Black Brandt family from Bristol is Astrotech's Oriole sub-orbital launch system and a hybrid-propulsion rocket from Lockheed Martin. At stake is an initial contract for 20 vehicles, which could grow to 160 systems.


NASA requires unproven systems to be flight tested before final bids are selected, with a deadline for successful demonstration of 14 July. In preparation for an Oriole test flight planned for 16 June, Astrotech's team-member Alliant Techsystems conducted the first of two test firings of the solid rocket motor in mid-May.


Wayne Montag, vice-president sub-orbital systems at Astrotech, a subsidiary of Spacehab, says the Oriole is based on Alliant's Gem strap-on booster for the Boeing Delta II launch vehicle. The Oriole has a 560mm (22in) diameter, compared with the Gem's 1m, and will be combined with surplus boosters and existing upper stages to meet NASA's requirement for seven sizes of sounding rocket.


The test flight will marry the Oriole with a surplus Terrier Mk12 missile booster, the workhorse of NASA's fleet, he says. Compared with the existing Black Brandt, the Oriole offers increased payload/ range capability, Montag says.


• Orbital Sciences has received a US Navy contract, potentially worth over $83 million, for a wide range of prototype spacecraft system and subsystem research, development and testing.

Source: Flight International