Orbital Sciences Corp. successfully launched a rocket in an attempt to send an unmanned commercial craft to the International Space Station.
The company’s new Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus capsule lifted off today at 10:58 a.m. from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The scheduled 36-day-long mission is the final test before Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital can make regular cargo deliveries under its $1.9 billion NASA contract.
Orbital’s flight is its first attempt to fly to the space station, an orbiting research laboratory that conducts experiments in physics, meteorology, biology and other fields. In an earlier test, the company successfully launched a rocket and delivered a mock cargo ship into space.
“This is a final demonstration of their ability to do the mission,” said John Logsdon, a professor emeritus and founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
If the mission is successful, Orbital could begin launching more capsules to the space station as early as December. The Cygnus capsule is designed to burn up in the atmosphere on re-entry.
Orbital’s shares closed today at $21.36, a new 52-week high. The stock is up 55 percent this year.
“There is clearly still a lot of work in front of us, but the mission looks like it is off to a great start,” said David W. Thompson, Orbital’s president and chief executive officer.
Closely held Space Exploration Technologies Corp., controlled by billionaire Elon Musk, last year became the first company to berth a private supply ship with the station.
NASA is counting on private companies such as Orbital and SpaceX to resupply the space station, a task formerly done by its own space shuttles. NASA retired the fleet in 2011.
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft underwent two test flights before it began shuttling cargo to the space station. Orbital decided on one test flight because it has more experience in space, said Jeffrey Foust, a space and telecommunications analyst with Futron Corp. in Bethesda, Maryland.
“They’re anxious to demonstrate Cygnus’ capability so they can start commercial flights and the revenue that comes with doing those cargo flights,” he said.
The first stage of the launch rocket is to separate four minutes after liftoff, and after the protective nosecone deploys, the second stage will fire. The stage will separate 10 minutes after liftoff and the spacecraft’s systems will then be activated. During its four-day trip to the space station, Cygnus is scheduled to perform 10 demonstrations that test the spaceship’s capabilities.
The Orbital spacecraft is expected to reach the station Sept. 22 with 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) of cargo, less than one-third of its capacity. A robotic arm from the station will grab the capsule and glide it into the port. The spacecraft will remain for about 30 days.
When missions start for real, Cygnus initially will carry about 4,400 pounds of cargo, said Barron Beneski, an Orbital spokesman. For later flights, the spacecraft will be able to carry as much as 5,500 pounds, he said.
SpaceX, which has a $1.6 billion contract for 12 missions, has successfully completed two trips. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which is designed to return to Earth and be reused, Cygnus will burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.
Dragon can be used to bring back experiments or equipment, while Cygnus will be used to ferry away trash, which will be incinerated along with the spacecraft, Foust said.