New private rocket launches into orbit on maiden voyage

April 22, 2013

The first private Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. launches toward space from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Sunday, April 21, 2013 (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A new commercial U.S. rocket soared into the Virginia sky Sunday  (April 21) on a debut flight that paves the way for eventual cargo flights to the International Space Station for NASA, reports.

The private Antares rocket, built by Orbital Sciences, is a two-stage booster designed to launch tons of supplies to the International Space Station aboard a new unmanned cargo ship called Cygnus. Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to provide at least eight resupply flights to the station using Antares and Cygnus.

Orbital Sciences is one of two companies with NASA contracts for commercial cargo deliveries to the space station. The other firm is Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., which has a $1.6 billion deal for 12 space station cargo missions.

Before the commercial program, NASA was dependent on Russian, Japanese and European cargo ships for supplies, and it still temporarily relies on Russian Soyuz vehicles for crewed missions.

The dummy module is expected to spend at least two weeks in orbit before burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, Orbital officials said.

Antares also carried three coffee cup-size Phonesat satellites — called Alexander, Graham and Bell — into orbit as part of a space technology experiment for NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. The tiny 4-inch-wide satellites use commercial smartphones as their main computers. Another small satellite the size of a bread box, called Dove-1, also rode into orbit as part of a commercial agreement for the California-based company Cosmogia. Dove-1 is reportedly an Earth-observation and remote sensing satellite, according to a NOAA remote sensing license document.

Orbital hopes to launch Antares rockets from Wallops every three to six months for the cargo delivery flights.