April 15, 2013
Launch of the Antares medium-lift rocket this week will open up a new East Coast spaceport within sight of the Washington Monument.
If all goes well with the inaugural flight of the Orbital Sciences Corp. commercial cargo carrier, the upgraded sounding-rocket facility on Wallops Island, Va., will send spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) and the Moon before the year is out.
Down the road, Orbital sees the state-owned facility as the starting point for scientific, military and commercial missions in the Delta II class, including polar-orbiting spacecraft.
Liftoff of the first Antares on its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) test flight is set for 5 p.m. April 17, with an instrumented Cygnus cargo carrier on top. Launch attempts on the following two days also are possible in case of weather or other delays at the new oceanside pad.
The first flight has been designed to demonstrate Antares's ability to launch separate stages safely and inject a payload into orbit.
“Our total mission elapsed time will be about 20 minutes for the booster itself,” says Michael Hamel, Orbital's senior vice president for corporate strategy and development. “The payload itself, the simulated mass, will actually get injected into orbit [and] will be in orbit for many months.”
If the mission goes as planned, the company hopes to be able to meet its final COTS milestone by mid-summer with a mission to berth its Cygnus cargo carrier with the ISS and deliver cargo. And if that hurdle is passed, the company could launch its first commercial resupply mission by year-end under its eight-flight, $1.9 billion fixed-price Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.
The Italian-built pressurized cargo vehicle for the final COTS flight already has been packed and integrated with its Cygnus service module, which Orbital built at its Dulles, Va., satellite facility. Once the mission is completed the company will receive the final payout in its $288 million COTS deal, and begin a CRS sequence that will last through 2016, depending on traffic at the ISS.