In a small Mississippi town, a group of scientists and engineers recently gathered to discuss their next project: building large aerospace composite structures for Northrop Grumman’s new OmegA rocket, which is being designed to launch the U.S. Air Force’s most critical spacecraft for U.S. national security missions.
The kick-off meeting took place in Iuka, Mississippi, home to Northrop Grumman’s large-scale composite rocket structure manufacturing facility where the company is building components up to 18 feet in diameter for the rocket. These include the nose cone, connecting sections between the rocket stages and other large composite structures for OmegA.
The Iuka facility has a rich 20-year history of manufacturing composite rocket structures for Northrop Grumman’s Antares and Pegasus rockets, as well as United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV and Atlas V vehicles. Iuka employees have manufactured more than 630 structures, including 432 that have successfully flown to space. The remaining structures are scheduled for upcoming Atlas V, Delta IV and Antares launches.
Composite structures are extremely important in rockets and are the unsung heroes to the space industry. This innovative technology provides components that are strong enough to withstand the Max-Q dynamic forces during a launch as the vehicle fights against the physics of gravity and aerodynamic loads that happen as the rocket is leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, all while weighing considerably less than their metal counterparts.
When launching a rocket, the total weight of the launch vehicle significantly impacts how much the rocket can carry into space. The lighter the rocket, the more performance capability it has to carry critical payloads into space.
Northrop Grumman is building OmegA in partnership with the U.S. Air Force through a shared cost program that enables the government to gain the best value in a new rocket. The team building OmegA includes rocket scientists, engineers and technicians who, on average, develop a new rocket every year. With more than 770 launches in the company’s profile – including space and satellite launches, targets, interceptors, hypersonic and suborbital rockets —– this team is a proven resource for the Department of Defense (DoD).
Outside of the work being performed in Iuka, this all-American rocket is being produced completely on American soil. The program is based out of Northrop Grumman’s Chandler, Arizona, facility, where the company manufactures the rocket’s thermal protection, flight systems and avionics. Northrop Grumman builds the first and second stage motors in Promontory, Utah, and the strap on boosters in Magna, Utah.
The cryostage manufacturing is taking place in Michoud, Louisiana, and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s West Palm, Florida, facility supplies the upper-stage RL-10 engine. OmegA’s launch operations will take place from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The OmegA team is currently preparing for a ground test of the first stage motor this spring, followed by a ground test of the second stage in the fall. The rocket’s first mission remains on track for launch in 2021.
Rick Straka, VP, aerospace structures, Northrop Grumman, said using the company's expert team and innovative, flight-proven technology, the Iuka facility has more than 20 years of experience manufacturing large launch vehicle structures. The company is excited to build on that heritage with the addition of OmegA composite structures to the firm's product line here in Mississippi. He added that for many, designing and building complex rockets is a once-in-a-career activity. For the company's team and customers, it is what the firm does all the time.