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Third time is a charm for Orbital’s cargo rocket



Posted on behalf of Devin Powell.

On Sunday, the Antares rocket successfully completed its maiden test flight. Launched from a new pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the rocket is the largest vehicle to ever take off from the spaceport.

“It looks like it performed flawlessly throughout the day,” said NASA launch commentator Kyle Herring.

The flight puts NASA one step closer to having two US cargo carriers capable of resupplying the International Space Station. Funded in part by NASA subsidies and made from components built around the world, Antares was assembled by Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Virginia. The Frankensteinian vehicle put into orbit a 3,800-kilogram mock-up of Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft that will, during a future mission later this year, transport supplies to the space station.

The spacecraft simulator separated and went into orbit about 10 minutes after launch. It will take measurements using on-board instruments and deploy four small satellites. Three inexpensive PhoneSats built by NASA’s Ames lab in Moffett Field, California — named Alexander, Graham and Bell — will be controlled by the same computer chips used in smartphones. The fourth satellite, Dove-1, will snap photos of the planet from low-Earth orbit.

Today’s launch comes four days after the first attempt, scrubbed when a data cable disconnected prematurely from the fuelled rocket. Strong winds delayed a second countdown on Saturday.

Veteran space player Orbital may be finally catching up to its rival, SpaceX, founded by PayPal magnate Elon Musk. SpaceX is already well underway on its US$1.6-billion resupply contract, with three visits to the space station by its Dragon spacecraft to date. Plagued by delays — from setbacks in the construction of its launch pad to problems with Antares’ engines and valves — Orbital has yet to get started on its own $1.9-billion contract.


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