Stock Price: 133.57 +0.04 5/18/2018 3:59 PM ET

Stock Price: 133.57 +0.04 5/18/2018 3:59 PM ET
Rocket to the Sun: Orbital ATK Team Develops Rocket Stage to Support NASA Solar Mission


Shortly after the merger of Orbital Sciences and ATK, Flight Systems Group President Ron Grabe stated that the newly merged Orbital ATK is stronger than the sum of its parts. Now the company is proving out that statement by drawing expertise from divisions across the country to develop an integrated third stage for a challenging mission. The stage will augment the powerful United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket to launch NASA’s Solar Probe Plus (SPP), an innovative spacecraft on a mission to study the Sun’s Atmosphere.

Working as one, the merged Orbital ATK team enables the SPP program to draw on engineering experience in motor design and production, avionics, flight software, and systems, and to work side by side as team members.

“We are leveraging the combined knowledge of a diverse team of expertise as well as flight-proven technologies to support this program,” said John Brunschwyler, SPP third stage program manager for Orbital ATK. “The mission is very challenging; having the right people and a robust, reliable rocket stage ensures success.”

Orbital ATK is building a fully integrated third stage that will give the spacecraft the high-energy boost needed to send it on its mission to study the Sun’s outer atmosphere. After separating from the launch vehicle’s second stage, Orbital ATK’s third stage motor will ignite and accelerate the SPP spacecraft, making it one of the fastest man-made objects in history.

During the third stage nominal burn time of 81 seconds, Orbital ATK’s flight computer and guidance control system will guide the SPP observatory on its way to an elliptical orbit around the Sun. The observatory, using several gravity assists from Venus, will ultimately pass within 10 solar radii of the Sun, many times closer to the sun than the planet Mercury.

NASA recently completed the Critical Design Review, which certified that the Solar Probe Plus mission design is at an advanced stage and that fabrication, assembly, integration and testing of the many elements of the mission may proceed for a 2018 launch.

“Due to the orbit requirements the launch window is during a very precise date range,” said Brunschwyler. “This means the spacecraft and launch vehicle schedule have to remain tight, and that is why using flight-proven technology and an experienced team is so critical.”

Orbital ATK’s third stage leverages flight-proven inertial navigation, avionics, attitude control and separation systems used on the company’s Pegasus®, Minotaur and Minotaur-C launch vehicles. The venerable STAR 48BV rocket motor, which traces its roots back to the 1980s, will provide the propulsion. The STAR 48 motor series has logged more than 130 successful missions.

The company’s Solar Probe Plus Third Stage program team is made up of employees located at the Orbital ATK’s facilities in Dulles, Virginia; Chandler, Arizona; and Elkton, Maryland.  

The SPP mission, which will enter the Sun’s outer atmosphere to study the streams of charged particles the Sun hurls into space, is scheduled to launch in 2018. The SPP spacecraft is being developed at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. SPP is part of NASA’s “Living with a Star” program, managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Orbital ATK has teamed with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch NASA’s Solar Probe Plus (SPP) mission. Orbital ATK’s powerful third stage on ULA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket will give NASA Solar Probe Plus spacecraft the high energy boost needed to send it on its mission to study the sun’s outer atmosphere. Photo courtesy of NASA .