Orbital Sciences Corp. successfully launched its new rocket as part of a test flight for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The two-stage rocket lifted off at 5 p.m. local time on April 21 from Wallops Island, Virginia. About 10 minutes later, it delivered a dummy payload into orbit. The booster, called Antares, is the Dulles, Virginia-based company's newest and biggest, measuring 133 feet long with about 755,000 pounds of thrust.
The test flight was required before Orbital attempts to launch an unmanned cargo spacecraft, called Cygnus, to the International Space Station this summer. Orbital and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, have NASA contracts to resupply the station through at least 2018. They're also marketing the rockets to defense and intelligence agencies as cheaper alternatives to those built by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.
“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," David Thompson, Orbital's chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We will now move forward toward completing the full demonstration mission of our system to resupply the International Space Station with essential cargo in just a couple of months.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a news release called it a "picture-perfect launch."
The mission ended about 18 minutes after liftoff when the rocket's upper stage completed planned maneuvers to distance itself from the dummy payload, which was the same size and weight as the Cygnus spacecraft, Orbital said. The flight demonstrated "all operational aspects" of the rocket, including reaching the target orbit of about 150 by 160 miles, the company said.
The launch was previously scheduled for April 17. It was aborted with about 10 minutes left in the countdown when an upper-stage engine hose disconnected prematurely. Once planned for 2011, the mission was repeatedly postponed because of delays in building and inspecting the new $125 million launch pad on Wallops Island.
Antares is designed to launch spacecraft weighing up to 14,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit and lighter payloads into higher orbits. It will offer commercial and other government customers such as the Air Force "affordable and reliable" launch services for medium-sized satellites that don't require larger, more expensive vehicles, the company said.
The rocket for its first stage uses two liquid-fuel AJ26 engines, made by Aerojet, part of California-based GenCorp Inc. They’re modified versions of the NK-33s built in Russia more than four decades ago for its moon program, which was later canceled. Aerojet bought about 40 NK-33 engines in the mid-1990s and, under a contract with Orbital, modified them specifically for Antares, according to Aerojet. The second-stage of the rocket uses a solid-fuel engine made by Arlington, Virginia-based Alliant Techsystems Inc.
Orbital, which also makes satellites, saw an opportunity for Antares amid the dwindling inventory of Delta IIs sold by Centennial, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. and Chicago-based Boeing Co.
The rocket may be a contender for such military programs as the Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program-3, known as OSP-3, and Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, known as EELV. It's already certified for the NASA Launch Services-2 contract, according to the company.
Orbital has a separate $1.9 billion contract with NASA for at least eight resupply missions to the space station. The agency is relying in part on Orbital and SpaceX, led by billionaire Elon Musk, to ferry food, water and supplies to the station after retiring its shuttle fleet in 2011. The agency also plans to begin ferrying astronauts to the station on commercial rockets beginning in 2017 so it can concentrate on manned mission to an asteroid and Mars.
"With NASA focusing on the challenging and exciting task of sending humans deeper into space than ever before, private companies will be crucial in taking the baton for American cargo and crew launches into low-Earth orbit," John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, said in a statement following the test flight.
SpaceX, which has a $1.6 billion NASA agreement for at least a dozen cargo flights, was the first company to send a privately developed spacecraft to the orbital outpost. The Hawthorne, California-based company completed its demonstration mission to the space station last spring and its first regular flight in the fall. SpaceX finished its second regular mission in March.
SpaceX's Dragon capsule is designed to bring back science experiments, lab equipment and other cargo, unlike Orbital's Cygnus, which is designed to take back trash and burn up during re-entry.