Watch Live: First Launch of Antares Rocket



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UPDATE: Wednesday’s test launch for Orbital Science Corporation’s Antares rocket was aborted due to the premature disconnection of a second-stage umbilical about 12 minutes before launch was scheduled. The earliest the flight can be rescheduled is Friday, April 19.

“We are still examining all of the data, but it appears that the issue is fairly straightforward,” said Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president and mission director for the Antares test flight, in a statement released by the company. “With this being the first launch of the new system from a new launch facility we have taken prudent steps to ensure a safe and successful outcome. Today, our scrub procedures were exercised and worked as planned. We are looking forward to a successful launch on Friday.”

[end of update]

It’s been billed as “the biggest, loudest and brightest rocket ever to launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility” in Virginia, and the commercial company Orbital Sciences Corporation is ready to send their Antares rocket on its maiden test flight. Orbital is testing Antares under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, and the rocket will send a dummy module into orbit that has the same mass as Orbital’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft, as well as a few smaller satellites, testing the rocket’s capabilities.

You can watch live here via NASA TV’s Ustream. There is a press briefing at 2 pm EDT (18:00 UTC), and launch coverage starts at 4:00 pm EDT (20:00 UTC), with the launch window open between 5 and 8 pm EDT (21:00 and midnight UTC).

This will mark not only the first launch of Antares, but the first orbital launch of a liquid-fueled rocket from Wallops. If all goes well with this flight, Orbital will carry out a full flight demonstration of Antares and the Cygnus cargo delivery system to the International Space Station around mid-2013.

If you live along the Eastern Seaboard of the US, here’s great information on how you might be able to see the launch, and here’s our article with more info on the flight.

Antares Launch Ignites Commercial Space Competition Race

The commercial space competition race is about to begin, and with a big bang at a most unexpected locale; Virginia’s Eastern shore.

The new and privately developed Antares rocket will ignite a new space race in the commercial arena – if all goes well – when the engines fire for Antares maiden soar to space slated for Wednesday, April 17.

“This is the biggest, loudest and brightest rocket ever to launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility,” said former station astronaut and now Orbital Sciences manager Frank Culbertson, at a media briefing held today (April 16), 1 day prior to liftoff.

The April 17 launch is a test flight of the Antares rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corp and is due to liftoff at 5 p.m. EDT from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad-0A at NASA Wallops.

The weather forecast shows a 45% chance of favorable weather.

The mission is dubbed the A-One Test Launch Mission.

The launch will be visible along portions of the US East Coast from South Carolina to Maine, depending on viewing conditions.

Antares is the most powerful rocket ever to ascend near major American East Coast population centers, unlike anything before – and critical to keeping the ISS fully functioning.

For the past year, SpaceX Corp founded by CEO Elon Musk has monopolized all the commercial space headlines – as the first and only private company to launch a spacecraft that successfully docked at the International Space Station (ISS).

1st fully integrated Antares rocket stands firmly erect at seaside Launch Pad 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on 16 April 2013.  Technicians were working at the pad during my photoshoot today. Maiden Antares test launch is scheduled for 17 April 2013. Later operational flights are critical to resupply the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
1st fully integrated Antares rocket stands firmly erect at seaside Launch Pad 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on 16 April 2013. Maiden Antares test launch is scheduled for 17 April 2013. Later operational flights are critical to resupply the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Indeed SpaceX just concluded its 3rd flight to the ISS lofting thousands of pounds (kg) of critically needed supplies to the ISS to keep it functioning – and numerous science experiments to keep the 6 person crew of astronauts busy conducting over 200 active science investigations and fulfill the stations purpose.

Orbital Sciences aims to match and perhaps even exceed the SpaceX Falcon 9 /Dragon architecture with its own ambitious space station resupply system comprising the medium class Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo resupply vehicle.

“The Cygnus can remain docked to the ISS for 30 to 90 days,” said former station astronaut and now Orbital Sciences manager Frank Culbertson at the briefing.

“Cygnus could be upgraded to stay longer perhaps up to a year in orbit,” Culbertson told Universe Today.

“Cygnus is based on the proven MPLM design. It could possibly be converted to a permanent habitation module for the ISS with added shielding and plumbing, if funding is available and if NASA wants to pursue that possibility,” Culbertson told me.

Cygnus could even be sent beyond low Earth orbit on ambitious new missions.

“This is a big event for this area and our country,” said Culbertson.

During the test flight Antares will boost a simulated Cygnus – known as a mass simulator – into a target orbit of 250 x 300 kilometers and inclined 51.6 degrees.

Antares rocket configuration - privately developed by Orbital Sciences Corp.
Antares rocket configuration – privately developed by Orbital Sciences Corp.

The Antares first stage is powered by dual liquid fueled AJ26 first stage rocket engines that generate a combined total thrust of some 750,000 lbs. The upper stage features a Castor 30 solid rocket motor with thrust vectoring. Antares can loft payloads weighing over 5000 kg to LEO.

Antares stands 131 feet tall.

Dozens of technicians were working at the pad during my photoshoot today.

The Antares/Cygnus system was developed by Orbital Sciences Corp under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to replace the ISS cargo resupply capability previously tasked to NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle fleet.

Over the next 3 to 4 years, eight Cygnus carriers will loft 20,000 kg of supplies, food, water, clothing , replacement parts and science gear to the ISS under a NASA contract valued at $1.9 Billion.

“This represents a new way of doing business for NASA,” said NASA’s commercial crew program manager Alan Lindenmoyer.

NASA Wallops Director Jay Wrobel has granted the formal Authority to Proceed for Orbital Science Corporation’s test launch of its Antares rocket.

Following today’s Flight Readiness review, Orbital managers gave a “GO” to proceed toward launch.

NASA TV launch coverage begins at 4 p.m. EDT on April 17.

Watch for my continuing on-site reports through liftoff of the Antares A-One Test flight.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Orion, Antares, SpaceX, Curiosity and NASA robotic and human spaceflight missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus “The Space Shuttle Finale and the Future of NASA – Orion, SpaceX, Antares and more!” NEAF Astronomy Forum, Rockland Community College, Suffern, NY. 3-4 PM Sat & Sunday. Display table all day.

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

Antares Rocket Erected at Virginia Pad for Inaugural April 17 Launch – Photo Gallery

1st fully integrated Antares rocket – decaled with huge American flag – stands firmly erect at seaside Launch Pad 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on 6 April 2013 following night time rollout. Maiden Antares test launch is scheduled for 17 April 2013. Later operational flights are critical to resupply the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com).
See Antares rollout and erection photo gallery below[/caption]

For the first time ever, the new and fully integrated commercial Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences was rolled out to its oceanside launch pad on a rather chilly Saturday morning (April 6) and erected at the very edge of the Eastern Virginia shoreline in anticipation of its maiden launch slated for April 17.

The inaugural liftoff of the privately developed two stage rocket is set for 5 p.m. from the newly constructed launch pad 0-A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

And Universe Today was there! See my photo gallery herein.

Antares is the most powerful rocket ever to ascend near major American East Coast population centers, unlike anything before. The launch is open to the public and is generating buzz.

And this is one very cool looking rocket.

Antares rocket begins 1st ever rollout from processing hanger to NASA Wallops launch pad - beneath the Moon on 6 April 2013.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket begins 1st ever rollout from processing hanger to NASA Wallops launch pad – beneath the Moon on 6 April 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The maiden April 17 launch is actually a test flight dubbed the A-One Test Launch Mission.

The goal of the A-One mission is to validate that Antares is ready to launch Orbital‘s Cygnus capsule on a crucial docking demonstration and resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as this summer.

The 1 mile horizontal rollout trek of the gleaming white rocket from the NASA integration hanger to the pad on a specially designed trailer began in the dead of a frosty, windy night at 4:30 a.m. – and beneath a picturesque moon.

“We are all very happy and proud to get Antares to the pad today for the test flight,” Orbital ground operations manager Mike Brainard told Universe Today in an interview at Launch Complex 0-A.

The rocket was beautifully decaled with a huge American flag as well as the Antares, Cygnus and Orbital logos.

Raising Antares at NASA Wallops. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Raising Antares at NASA Wallops. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Antares was transported aboard the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL), a multifunctional, specialized vehicle that also slowly raised the rocket to a vertical position on the launch pad a few hours later, starting at about 1 p.m. under clear blue skies.

This first ever Antares erection took about 30 minutes. The lift was postponed for several hours after arriving at the pad as Orbital personal monitored the continually gusting winds approaching the 29 knot limit and checked all pad and rocket systems to insure safety.

The TEL vehicle also serves as a support interface between the 133-foot Antares and the range of launch complex systems.

Antares transported atop aboard the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) beneath the Moon on 6 April 2013.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com
Antares transported atop aboard the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) beneath the Moon on 6 April 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com

Now that Antares stands vertical, “We are on a clear path to a launch date of April 17, provided there are no significant weather disruptions or major vehicle check-out delays between now and then,” said Mr. Michael Pinkston, Orbitals Antares Program Manager.

Antares is a medium class rocket similar to the Delta II and SpaceX Falcon 9.

For this test flight Antares will boost a simulated version of the Cygnus carrier – known as a mass simulator – into a target orbit of 250 x 300 kilometers and inclined 51.6 degrees.

Antares rolls up the ramp to Launch Complex 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on 6 April 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rolls up the ramp to Launch Complex 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on 6 April 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The Antares first stage is powered by dual liquid fueled AJ26 first stage rocket engines that generate a combined total thrust of some 680,000 lbs. The upper stage features a Castor 30 solid rocket motor with thrust vectoring. Antares can loft payloads weighing over 5000 kg to LEO.

The Antares/Cygnus system was developed by Orbital Sciences Corp under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to replace the ISS cargo resupply capability previously tasked to NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle fleet.

Up Close with Antares beautifully decaled nose NASA Wallops Pad 0-A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Up Close with Antares beautifully decaled nose at NASA Wallops Pad 0-A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus system is similar in scope to the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon system. Both firms won lucrative NASA contracts to deliver approximately 20,000 kilograms of supplies and equipment to the ISS.

The goal of NASA’s COTS initiative is to achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the ISS and low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Orbital will launch at least eight Antares/Cygnus resupply missions to the ISS at a cost of $1.9 Billion

The maiden Antares launch has been postponed by about 2 years due to delays in laiunch pad construction and validating the rocket and engines for flight- similar in length to the start up delays experienced by SpaceX for Falcon 9 and Dragon.

Read my prior Antares story detailing my tour of the launch complex following the successful 29 sec hot-fire engine test that cleared the path for the April 17 liftoff – here & here.

Watch for my continuing reports through liftoff of the Antares A-One Test flight.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Antares, SpaceX, Curiosity and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus Orion, SpaceX, Antares, the Space Shuttle and more! NEAF Astronomy Forum, Suffern, NY

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

Only a few hundred feet of beach sand and a  low sea wall separate the pad from the Atlantic Ocean and Mother Nature and potential catastrophe. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com
Only a few hundred feet of beach sand and a low sea wall separate the Wallops Island pad from the Atlantic Ocean and Mother Nature and potential catastrophe. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Thumbs Up for Antares ! - from NASA Wallops Media team and Space journalists.  Ken at right. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Thumbs Up for Antares ! – from NASA Wallops Media team and Space journalists. Ken at right. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Powerful Private Rocket Crucial to ISS Set for Maiden April Blast Off from Virginia – Launch Pad Gallery

The first stage of the privately developed Antares rocket stands erect at newly constructed Launch Pad 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility during exclusive launch complex tour by Universe Today. Maiden Antares test launch is scheduled for mid-April 2013. Later operational flights are critical to resupply the ISS.
Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
See Antares photo gallery below[/caption]

The most powerful rocket ever to ascend near major American East Coast population centers is slated to blast off soon from the eastern Virginia shore on its inaugural test flight in mid April.

And Universe Today took an exclusive inspection tour around the privately developed Antares rocket and NASA Wallops Island launch complex just days ago.

NASA announced that the maiden flight of the commercial Antares rocket from Orbital Sciences is slated to soar to space between April 16 to 18 from the newly constructed seaside launch pad dubbed 0-A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The two stage Antares rocket is absolutely pivotal to NASA’s plans to ship essential cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in the wake of the shutdown of the Space Shuttle program in July 2011.

No admittance to the Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket without permission from the pad manager! Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
No admittance to the Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket without permission from the pad manager. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Antares stands 131 feet tall and serves as the launcher for the unmanned commercial Cygnus cargo spacecraft.

Both Antares and Cygnus were developed by Orbital Sciences Corp under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to replace the ISS cargo resupply capability previously tasked to NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle’s. The goal is to achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the ISS and low-Earth orbit (LEO).

I visited NASA Wallops for an up close personal tour of the impressive Antares 1st stage rocket erected at the launch pad following the successful 29 second hot fire engine test that cleared the last hurdle to approve the maiden flight of Antares. Umbilical lines were still connected to the rocket.

Antares rocket 1st stage and umbilicals at NASA Wallops Flight Facility.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket 1st stage and umbilical lines at NASA Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The pads protective seawall was rebuilt following significant damage from Hurricane Sandy, NASA Wallops spokesman Keith Koehler told me.

Launch Complex 0-A sits just a few hundred yards (meters) from Virginia’s eastern shore line on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s hard to believe just how close the low lying pad complex is to the beach and potentially destructive tidal surges.

Barely 400 meters (1300 feet) away lies the adjacent Launch Pad 0-B – from which Orbital’s new and unflown solid fueled Minotaur 5 rocket will boost NASA’s LADEE lunar science probe to the Moon in August 2013 – see my upcoming article.

The maiden Antares test flight is called the A-One Test Launch Mission. It will validate the medium class rocket for the actual follow-on flights to the ISS topped with the Cygnus cargo carrier starting later this year with a demonstration docking mission to the orbiting lab complex.

The first stage of the privately developed Antares rocket stands on the pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
1st stage of private Antares rocket erect at new Launch Pad 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. This rocket will be rolled back to the hanger to make way for the complete Antares booster due to blast off in mid-April 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The Antares first stage is powered by dual liquid fueled AJ26 first stage rocket engines that generate a combined total thrust of some 680,000 lbs. The upper stage features a Castor 30 solid rocket motor with thrust vectoring. Antares can loft payloads weighing over 5000 kg to LEO.

The launch window opens at 3 p.m. and extends for a period of time since this initial test flight is not docking at the ISS, Orbital spokesman Barry Boneski told Universe Today.

Antares will boost a simulated version of the Cygnus carrier – known as a mass simulator – into a target orbit of 250 x 300 kilometers and inclined 51.6 degrees.

Antares A-One will fly on a southeast trajectory and the Cygnus dummy will be instrumented to collect flight and payload data.

The simulated Cygnus will separate from the upper stage 10 minutes after liftoff for orbital insertion.

“All launches are to the south away from population centers. Wildlife areas are nearby,” said Koehler.

The goal of the ambitious A-One mission is to fully demonstrate every aspect of the operational Antares rocket system starting from rollout of the rocket and all required functions of an operational pad from range operation to fueling to liftoff to payload delivery to orbit.

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Launch Complex 0-A at the edge of Virginia’s shore at NASA Wallops are crucial to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Launch Complex 0-A at the edge of Virginia’s shore at NASA Wallops are crucial to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). . Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Antares/Cygnus will provide a cargo up mass service similar to the Falcon 9/Dragon system developed by SpaceX Corporation – which has already docked three times to the ISS during historic linkups in 2012 and earlier this month following the tension filled March 1 liftoff of the SpaceX CRS-2 mission.

The Dragon is still docked to the ISS and is due to make a parachute assisted return to Earth on March 26.

The first stage of the privately developed Antares rocket stands on the pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket 1st stage and huge water tower at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Orbital has eight commercial resupply missions manifested under a $1.9 Billion contact with NASA to deliver approximately 20,000 kilograms of supplies and equipment to the ISS, Orbital spokesman Barry Boneski told me.

Tens of millions of American East Coast residents in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions have never before had the opportunity to witness anything as powerful as an Antares rocket launch in their neighborhood.

Watch for my continuing reports through liftoff of the Antares A-One Test flight.

Ken Kremer

NASA Wallops Launch Control Center. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
NASA Wallops Launch Control Center. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Ken Kremer & Antares rocket at NASA Wallops launch pad at the Virginia Eastern Shore.  Only a few hundred feet separate the pad from the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Ken Kremer & Antares rocket at NASA Wallops launch pad at the Virginia Eastern Shore. Only a few hundred feet of beach sand and a low sea wall separate the pad from the Atlantic Ocean and Mother Nature. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Antares Rocket Critical Hotfire Engine Test Set for Feb. 12

Orbital Sciences Corporation has at last scheduled a critical engine test for the firm’s new commercially developed Antares medium class rocket for Feb. 12 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s (MARS) Pad-0A.

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility will provide launch range support for the Antares rocket test which is a key milestone on the path to a flight that is crucial for eventual resupply of the International Space Station (ISS).

The window for the 29 second long engine test is 6-9 p.m EST. There will be no live broadcast or formal viewing of the test since it is only operational in nature.

For this hot fire test only the first stage of the Antares rocket will be rolled out to the launch pad – the first of its kind constructed in America in several decades.

The first stage of the Antares rocket stands on the pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Orbital Sciences
The first stage of the Antares rocket stands on the pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Orbital Sciences

During the test, the Antares’ dual AJ26 first stage rocket engines will generate a combined total thrust of 680,000 lbs. In a unique capability for its duration, the rocket will be held down on the pad and accounts for the huge water tower built nearby.

The goal of the hot fire test is a complete checkout of the rocket’s first stage and all the support systems at Pad-0A being utilized for the first time.

Antares is the launcher for Orbital’s unmanned commercial Cygnus cargo spacecraft that NASA’s hopes will further reestablish American resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) lost with the shuttle’s shutdown.

If successful, a full up test flight of the 131 foot tall Antares with a Cygnus mass simulator bolted on top is planned for the maiden launch in roughly 4 to 6 weeks later, perhaps by late March 2013.

Antares/Cygnus will provide a similar service to the Falcon 9/Dragon system developed by SpaceX Corporation – which has already docked twice to the ISS during historic linkups in 2012.

Both the Orbital and SpaceX systems were developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to replace the ISS cargo capability previously tasked to NASA Space Shuttle’s.

A docking demonstration mission to the ISS would follow later in 2013 which would be nearly identical in scope to the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon demonstration flight successfully accomplished in May 2012.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket liftoff on May 22, 2012 from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on the first commercial mission to the International Space Station.  Orbital hopes to duplicate the SpaceX feat in 2013.  Credit: Ken Kremer
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket liftoff on May 22, 2012 from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on the first commercial mission to the International Space Station. Orbital hopes to duplicate the SpaceX feat in 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Antares first stage is powered by a pair of Soviet era NK-33 engines built during the 1960 and 1970’s as part of Russia’s ill-fated N-1 manned moon program. The engines have since been upgraded and requalified by Aerojet Corp. and integrated into the Ukrainian built first stage rocket as AJ-26 engines.

Tens of millions of US East Coast residents in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions have never seen anything as powerful as an Antares rocket launch in their neighborhood.

“Antares is the biggest rocket ever launched from Wallops,” NASA Wallops spokesman Keith Koehler told me.

Ken Kremer

Antares Commercial Rocket Reaches New Atlantic Coast Launch Pad

Image Caption: Antares Rocket At Wallops Flight Facility Launch Pad. Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket at the launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. In a few months, Antares is scheduled to launch a cargo delivery demonstration mission to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Credit: NASA

At long last, Orbital Sciences Corporation has rolled their new commercially developed Antares medium class rocket to the nation’s newest spaceport – the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island,Va – and commenced on pad operations as of Monday, Oct 1.

The long awaited rollout marks a key milestone on the path to the maiden test flight of the Antares, planned to blast off before year’s end if all goes well.

This is a highly noteworthy event because Antares is the launcher for Orbital’s unmanned commercial Cygnus cargo spacecraft that NASA’s hopes will reestablish resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) lost with the shuttle’s shutdown.

“MARS has completed construction and testing operations on its launch complex at Wallops Island, the first all-new large-scale liquid-fuel launch site to be built in the U.S. in decades,” said David W. Thompson, Orbital’s President and Chief Executive Officer.

“Accordingly, our pad operations are commencing immediately in preparation for an important series of ground and flight tests of our Antares medium-class launch vehicle over the next few months. In fact, earlier today (Oct. 1), an Antares first stage test article was transported to the pad from its final assembly building about a mile away, marking the beginning of full pad operations.”

Antares 1st stage rocket erected at Launch Pad 0-A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: NASA

In about 4 to 6 weeks, Orbital plans to conduct a 30 second long hot fire test of the first stage, generating a total thrust of 680,000 lbs. If successful, a full up test flight of the 131 foot tall Antares with a Cygnus mass simulator bolted on top is planned for roughly a month later.

An ISS docking demonstration mission to the ISS would then occur early in 2013 which would be nearly identical in scope to the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon demonstration flight successfully launched and accomplished in May 2012.

The first commercial resupply mission to the ISS by SpaceX (CRS-1) is now set to lift off on Oct. 7 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The 700,000 lb thrust Antares first stage is powered by a pair of Soviet era NK-33 engines built during the 1960 and 1970’s as part of Russia’s ill-fated N-1 manned moon program. The engines have since been upgraded and requalified by Aerojet Corp. and integrated into the Ukrainian built first stage rocket as AJ-26 engines.

Image Caption: Antares first stage arrives on the pad at NASA_Wallops on Oct. 1. First stage approaching adapter ring on the right. Credit: NASA

NASA awarded contracts to Orbital Sciences Corp and SpaceX in 2008 to develop unmanned commercial resupply systems with the goal of recreating an American capability to deliver cargo to the ISS which completely evaporated following the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in 2011 with no follow on program ready to go.

“Today’s (Oct. 1) rollout of Orbital’s Antares test vehicle and the upcoming SpaceX mission are significant milestones in our effort to return space station resupply activities to the United States and insource the jobs associated with this important work,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver. “NASA’s commercial space program is helping to ensure American companies launch our astronauts and their supplies from U.S. soil.”

The public will be invited to watch the Antares blastoff and there are a lot of locations for spectators to gather nearby for an up close and personal experience.

“Antares is the biggest rocket ever launched from Wallops,” NASA Wallops spokesman Keith Koehler told me. “The launches will definitely be publicized.”

Ken Kremer