Photo gallery: Virginia’s Wallops Island is busier, with bigger rockets

Virginia has a low-key spaceport, if a place that blasts rockets into space can ever be low-key.

Florida’s Cape Canaveral is more famous and California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base is more prominent because it handles national-security satellite launches. But Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility is gradually shoving itself into space-buff consciousness.

Wallops Island has hosted a NASA (or precursor to NASA) launch site since 1945, but in the ’90s it became a major spaceport for Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corp., whose rockets are getting bigger.

In April 2013, Orbital launched a new, large rocket, named Antares, carrying the company’s Cygnus spacecraft on a mission to the International Space Station. Orbital has a commercial contract to supply cargo to the station (as does SpaceX, which launches from the Cape).

Wallops isn’t as busy as the Cape, which serves NASA and the Air Force. That means less risk of scheduling conflicts that delay flights. The higher latitude of Wallops (37.9 degrees, compared with 28.6 degrees at the Cape) also makes it easier to reach the space station, which has an orbit inclined 51.6degrees to the equator.

The next launch of Antares/Cygnus is set for October, and — as with previous launches — will be visible to the District and points beyond.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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