Orbital Sciences Corp. Scores Antares Launch Success
Orbital Sciences Corp. launched the Antares rocket from a Virginia launch complex Sunday evening, successfully carrying out a near 19 minute orbital test light that positions the Dulles, Va., based company to become the second U. S. commercial provider of supplies to the six-person International Space Station.
The two stage rocket lifted off from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at 5 p.m., EDT, designated as the Antares A-One mission and climbed south and east on a trajectory matching the station’s.
As the Antares second stage reached orbital velocity, it released a mass simulator for the Cygnus supply capsule, marking the end of the test. If further assessments of the flight prove satisfactory an Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus could be ready to carry out a demonstration mission all the way to the space station with nearly 1,800 pounds of cargo in late June or early July.
At that time, astronauts will be standing by at the controls of the station’s Canadian robot arm to grapple the capsule as it rendezvous and berth it to the station’s U. S. segment, just as they did with previous SpaceX Dragon capsules.
Hawthorne, Calif., based SpaceX has flown three cargo delivery missions to the space station since May 2012. Both companies are partnered with NASA under the Commercial Orbital Space Transpiration program to fill the supply mission gap left as the space shuttle program came to an end in mid-2011.
If Orbital Science’s mid-summer test flight goes well, the company will be ready to begin regular supply missions to the station under a $1.9 billion NASA contract. SpaceX is already doing as much under a $1.6 billion agreement.
The Cygnus mass simulator launched Sunday will circle the Earth at altitudes much lower than the 250 mile high space station. It should re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in two weeks or so.
Efforts to launch Antares on Saturday and Wednesday of last week were called off because of high altitude winds that exceeded launch constraints and a second stage data cable that fell away prematurely near the end of the first launch countdown.
“Today marked a giant step forward for the Antares program, with a fully successful inaugural flight of the largest and most complex rocket the company has ever developed and flown,” said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital Sciences Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. “With its successful test flight from the MARS pad at Wallops Island, we will now move forward toward completing the full demonstration mission of our system to re-supply the International Space Station with essential cargo in just a couple of months.”
Previous missions to the space station have launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center or the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Russia, French Guiana or Japan. Russia has shouldered the responsibility for launching astronauts for NASA as well as cargo since the shuttle’s retirement.
NASA was pleased with the efforts of its commercial partner.
“Today’s successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA’s plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket. In addition to providing further evidence that our strategic space exploration plan is moving forward, this test also inaugurates America’s newest spaceport capable of launching to the space station, opening up additional opportunities for commercial and government users.”