WASHINGTON – U.S. manufacturer Orbital Sciences launched its first Antares rocket Sunday, paving the way for a demonstration flight to the International Space Station within months.
The two-stage launch vehicle blasted off at 5 p.m. from the Wallops Flight Facility on an island off the coast of Virginia.
As this was a test mission, Antares was not transporting the company’s Cygnus capsule but rather a simulation of an equivalent 3.8-ton payload — filled with electronic equipment — placed into orbit at an altitude of roughly 260 km 10 minutes after takeoff.
With the success, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences now plans a demonstration run to the ISS with the Cygnus capsule in three months, followed by its first delivery mission before the end of the year.
“Today marked a giant step forward for the Antares program, with a fully successful inaugural flight of the largest and most complex rocket the company has ever developed and flown,” Orbital Chairman David Thompson said.
“We will now move forward toward completing the full demonstration mission of our system to resupply the International Space Station with essential cargo in just a couple of months,” Thompson said.
A $1.9 billion contract requires Orbital Sciences to deliver freight to the ISS over the course of eight flights by the beginning of 2016. It is one of two private U.S. firms chosen by NASA to shuttle cargo to the outpost.
Unlike the Dragon capsule developed by rival SpaceX, Cygnus cannot return to Earth and will be destroyed upon re-entry after its mission is complete.
However, Orbital Sciences said Cygnus could stay in orbit for up to a year, while the simulated payload will do so for two weeks.