WALLOPS ISLAND, Va — It was an early, cold morning, but with the sunrise came the ascension of Antares. NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation rolled the first Antares rocket scheduled to fly into space out to the launch pad today. This morning’s efforts were conducted to ensure that everything was ready for a planned April 17, 2013, 5 p.m. EDT. launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s (MARS) Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, located on Wallops Island, Va.
Due to gusty winds that reached close to the 29 mph, which is the limit for safe pad operations, the lift operation was delayed shortly after Antares reached the pad this afternoon. Finally, the winds cooperated and the vehicle was raised starting at about 1 p.m.; the total lift took about an hour, and Antares is now secured to the pad. After all data is reviewed, a formal launch date should be announced later this coming week.
Although this Antares sported the Cygnus logo, this rocket’s payload was essentially a mass simulator for the real Cygnus, which is planned to fly its first mission to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year. If all goes according to plan, after completing the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) requirements, Orbital will begin carrying out the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract and deliver supplies to the ISS.
Under the $171 million COTS contract that Orbital has with NASA, it is required to demonstrate the capabilities of both the Antares launch vehicle as well as the Cygnus cargo vessel. Orbital has stated that the company’s investment in this effort will be approximately $150 million, with $130 million going toward Antares and the remaining $20 million tasked for the Cygnus spacecraft. To date, estimates on how much it has cost to develop the duo have been estimated at being more than $470 million.
Currently, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has already completed both the COTS requirements as well as two CRS missions to the orbiting laboratory. Unlike Cygnus, which burns up in the atmosphere upon re-entry, SpaceX’s Dragon is recoverable.
During today’s operations, Antares was rolled out to Pad-0A and then lifted into the vertical position. The whole process took more than eight hours.
Antares has a two-day window in which to launch Antares; it stretches from April 17-19. NASA hopes that initiatives like COTS and CRS will enable private companies to handle sending cargo (and perhaps one day crew) to destinations in low-Earth orbit. If these companies can do so affordably, then NASA would be able to conduct operations beyond the orbit of Earth for the first time in more than four decades.
“All the data from the engine test-fire last month looked good; we’re just being extra careful to make sure all pad work and fit checks are good before raising the vehicle to vertical position, and a firm launch date will be set hopefully next week once the vehicle is up and secured to the pad,” said Orbital’s Mike Brainard.
Antares is a relatively new name for the rocket—it used to be called the Taurus II. Orbital gave it its current moniker in 2011. The launch vehicle, like most, is comprised of components from a variety of aerospace companies. Aerojet provided the AJ-26 (formerly NK-33) engines in the booster’s first stage, and Utah-based ATK provided the Castor 30 solid rocket motor that is used in Antares’ second stage. Various other components were produced by a variety of manufacturers.
Today’s rollout is the culmination of numerous milestones that Antares had to go through before making its way to the pad. The most crucial of these was the “hot-fire” test that was successfully completed this past February. During the hot-fire test, Antares’ first stage engines were activated for 29 seconds while the rocket was bolted to the pad.
Orbital selected Wallops in June 2008 to launch from, as it was viewed as just as effective as Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Pad-0A has an interesting history in terms of commercial space ventures. It was previously used by the first privately-funded, commercial rocket—the Conestoga Rocket by Space Services Inc. The company eventually was shut down due to lack of business. In a way, Antares serves as a rebirth for Pad-0A, one which could reach fruition later this month.
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