Orbital Sciences launches Antares in key test

Orbital Sciences successfully launched its Antares rocket Sunday in a test that advances its effort to undertake resupply missions to the International Space Station.

The launch was an equally important step for the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport facility on Wallops Island, which state officials hope will position Virginia as a commercial space flight hub.

The success of the launch and the facility would “put Virginia on the map when it comes to space,” said Sean T. Connaughton, Virginia’s transportation secretary, in an interview earlier in the week. “We’ve invested money in this because we believe ... it will keep high-tech jobs in Virginia and grow that base.”

Orbital’s test was focused on its Antares rocket launcher, just one element of the technology needed to deliver supplies to the space station. The Antares vehicle launches the Cygnus space module, which acts as the brains of the operation by housing the avionics, propulsion and navigation systems. Attached to the space module would be a cargo module, which is built by Thales Alenia.

The test launch used a simulator in place of the Cygnus module. The final stage of the Antares rocket and the simulator will go into orbit and remain there for a couple months before they reenter and burn up in the atmosphere, according to an Orbital spokesman.

Orbital has a deal with NASA to launch unmanned space modules that will deliver supplies to the International Space Station, take away its trash and then burn up as they reenter the atmosphere. The company is planning to complete eight supply missions by early 2016.

Connaughton said Virginia hopes to carve out a niche in the commercial space business. Orbital was originally part of the ownership team of a $120 million liquid fuel pad built at the space facility, but the state bought out the company to be able to offer the pad to potential competitors, he said.

To attract commercial businesses, he said the facility will not give government flights priority and will be focused on smaller payloads.

“We are already in discussions with other launch providers,” he said. “Whoever signs contracts [will be] ... at the head of the line.”

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