Orbital ATK [OA], which is developing a new space launch vehicle to compete for U.S. Air Force business, announced Nov. 7 that the rocket’s first motor case has passed a key test.

The structural acceptance test, which occurred Oct. 27 in Promontory, Utah, showed that the 12-foot-diameter motor case could withstand the internal pressure it would experience during a launch, the company said.

A rocket motor case for Orbital ATK's new Next Generation Launch system. (Photo courtesy of Orbital ATK)
A rocket motor case for Orbital ATK’s new Next Generation Launch system. (Photo courtesy of Orbital ATK)

The test paves the way for the motor case to be filled with inert solid rocket propellant in early 2018 and shipped to a launch site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to undergo ground check-out operations.

Orbital ATK is developing the motor case for its Next Generation Launch (NGL) system, a rocket family designed to launch national security payloads and commercial and science satellites.

“NGL is one of Orbital ATK’s top growth initiatives,” said Scott Lehr, president of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group. “This milestone clearly shows the progress being made by the hundreds of engineers and technicians in Utah and Arizona who are developing the NGL system.”

The company plans to offer NGL in an Air Force competition to fund the development of new launch system prototypes. Bids are due Nov. 20, and the Air Force plans to award at least three launch service agreements (LSAs) in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2018 (Defense Daily, Oct. 6).

If Orbital ATK receives an LSA, which would cover full vehicle and launch site development, it will conduct the work in Promontory and Magna, Utah; Iuka, Miss., Chandler, Ariz.; Kennedy Space Center in Florida; and Vandenberg AFB in California. The company and the Air Force have already spent a total of more than $200 million on NGL since 2015.

Orbital ATK hopes to conduct NGL’s first certification flight test in 2021. NGL is intended to launch intermediate and heavy payloads, compared to the small and medium payloads of its existing line of rockets.

Other expected or potential contenders for the LSAs include United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is a joint venture between Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT], and SpaceX. The Air Force wants to develop new launch vehicles to end its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which powers ULA’s Atlas 5.