Orbital Sciences (OSC) is readying Antares, its medium-class launch vehicle, for its first Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) test flight, “A-ONE”, currently scheduled to take place between April 16 and 18, from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. This launch will seek to validate the Antares rocket. It will not carry an actual Cygnus cargo spacecraft but will instead have mass to simulate as if it were carrying a Cygnus. A successful launch of Antares will set the stage for Orbital’s next launch that would include a Cygnus mission to International Space Station (ISS).
Originating from Orbital’s new Wallops launch facility, Pad 0A, the mission will boost this simulated payload to a target orbit of 250 km x 300 km with an inclination of 51.6 degrees. Wallops Pad 0A is part of the Virginia Commercial Space Authority’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). The mission’s objective is to demonstrate the viability of the Antares launch system from roll-out of the rocket from its integration facility, through setting it up on the pad, fueling, to launch and delivery of the payload into orbit.
The test launch will be the final hurdle Orbital has to complete before the company can demonstrate its cargo-delivery capabilities to the ISS under the NASA COTS agreement. Following the successful completion of the COTS requirements, Orbital is slated to deliver up to 10 metric tons of supplies to the station under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.
Under the joint NASA/Orbital COTS agreement, Orbital is developing the Cygnus cargo vessel, which must meet the strict safety requirements for station operations. Much like the other company that was awarded a COTS contract, SpaceX, Orbital is developing their rocket to also be used to deliver medium-class payloads to low-Earth-orbit. Unlike Orbital, SpaceX has already completed the COTS requirements and has moved on to the CRS contract. Currently a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft is berthed to the International Space Station.
Under the CRS contracr, Orbital is required to conduct eight resupply flights to the ISS between 2013 and 2015 and deliver 10 metric tons of cargo to the crew stationed there. Unlike the SpaceX Dragon vehicle, Cygnus is not designed to return to Earth. When it has completed its mission and be re-filled with waste, the vessel will be directed back into Earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up.