NASA has authorized a test launch of a new kind of rocket to serve the International Space Station (ISS) at 5 p.m. EDT Wednesday. Manufactured by the Orbital Sciences Corporation, the Antares made a successful fueling test last weekend with the replacement of a first stage engine coolant system valve. With a 45% chance of acceptable weather, the launch may be delayed over the next five days. The rocket is expected to be visible 10 or more degrees above the horizon from Virginia and neighboring states. DoDLive will operate a YouTube channel with breaking coverage and updates of the launch.
The launch is expected to elevate the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia as a major player in the U.S. space program. The facility on the Virginia coastline, not far from the Dulles, Virginia headquarters of OSC, has been the site of over 16,000 rocket launches, but this will be the largest ever made there. Small and little-known, MARS was viewed as less crowded and thus less prone to unexpected delay than the site in Florida. However, problems with construction of the launch pad were blamed for launch slips that delayed the Antares launch from the original February 28, 2012 date, after which high winds and flooding from Hurricane Sandy further delayed the launch into 2013. For the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which operates MARS and built the launch pad specifically for Orbital, the launch may create an opportunity to recruit space and technology companies to the region.
Watch a live stream of the launch below, beginning at 4 p.m. EDT:
The Antares is the new name for the expendable Taurus II medium-class launch vehicle which Orbital has been developing for five years. The new name is meant to differentiate it from the troubled Taurus, for which three of the last four satellite launches have failed to reach orbit, and reflects a change to a liquid fuel first stage powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene (RP-1) and its orientation toward the medium-class space launch market. This 131-foot rocket, about the size of one of the Space Shuttle's solid fuel boosters, carries a payload of up to 5,000 kg. Its competitor, the SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.0, carries 10,450 kg and the former space shuttles 24,400 kg. Normally the Antares ISS missions will carry the Cygnus advanced maneuvering spacecraft, itself composed of a service module with solar arrays and hydrazine thrusters, and the pressurized cargo module, capacity 2700 kilograms. Cygnus can dock with the ISS for up to 30 days.
However, Wednesday's test will be conducted with a mockup of the cargo module loaded with instruments, which should burn up in the atmosphere two weeks after the launch. It will also take the opportunity to deliver four small satellites into orbit: the five-kilogram Dove-1 amateur radio satellite and Phonesat-1a, -1b, and -1c micro-cubesats. The Phonesats are 4-inch cubes built around Nexus One smartphones running the Android operating system with a total component cost of about $3500, which will send back telemetry data and digital images of the Earth taken from the smartphone camera.
The launch is part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, in which the agency takes on the role of "lead investor, technical consultant, and potential customer" to selected space entrepreneurs. For Orbital, the road to this launch began with a February 2008 competition held after Rocketplane-Kistler, which won a similar competition in August 2006, "failed to complete financial and technical milestones." Orbital replaced RpK as one of the two COTS commercial partners, vyng with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) for future ISS service missions.
This will be the first of two COTS missions for Orbital, the second being a full flight demonstration of delivery to the ISS around mid-year. The ISS transportation office has also contracted with Orbital for eight missions to carry 20,000 kilograms of cargo for $1.9 billion. Despite its larger cargo capacity and its capability of returning materials to the Earth, SpaceX is presently fulfilling a contract to fly twelve missions to the ISS for $1.6 billion. By comparison, the Space Shuttle program cost $450-$500 million per launch. NASA payments under COTS are dependent on completion of performance-based milestones and are expected to lead to lower servicing costs, while companies retain "the maximum rights to intellectual property allowed by law."
The COTS program operates alongside the Commercial Crew Development Program, in which NASA has agreed to fund $320 million to four commercial partners — Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX — and has also made unfunded Space Act Agreements with ATK and the United Space Alliance that allow them to continue their competing programs.
The Antares rocket dwarfs some much-feared national efforts like North Korea's Unha-3 rocket and Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, which have little more than half its diameter and none of its expected reliability. Nonetheless, this launch may not kindle the sort of national excitement that came with the Space Shuttle. As often as we decry the inefficiency of massive government projects, lucrative business arrangements to create small, cheap cargo options just don't seem to have the same power to arouse a patriotic fervor. But with this launch, we will now have two American companies positioned to compete to provide similar cargo services to the ISS, alongside Russia's Progress, Europe's ATV, and Japan's HTV. Antares and competing services can be adapted to launch satellites and may one day serve private space stations, orbiting fuel depots or asteroid-mining operations. For better or worse, we are seeing the space program make way for the space industry.