Orbital’s Antares Rocket Blasts Off On Wednesday

Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket will blast off on Wednesday from Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in its first test flight.

The private cargo-launching rocket has been in the works since before 2008 when the company received a contract from NASA to fly robotic cargo missions to the International Space Station.

After five years, a name change, and a series of delays, the highly anticipated rocket is ready. The NASA contract will pay Orbital $1.9 billion to make eight unmanned cargo trips to the ISS using Antares and its remotely operated spacecraft, Cygnus.

The US space agency also signed a $1.6 billion deal with SpaceX, a California-based company, to make 12 missions to the ISS with the company’s Dragon capsule, which uses a Falcon 9 rocket. The Dragon capsule has already made two of the contracted supply missions to deliver cargo.

Dragon also docked with the International Space Station in May 2012 as a demonstration mission. But it has taken the Antares rocket longer to reach their goal than Spacex, partly because their launch pad was not yet ready.

While the SpaceX missions have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida — a site used to handling many manned and unmanned spaceflights throughout the years. The MARS’ Launch Pad 0A, where Antares will lift off, was originally constructed in 1995 for the now-retired Conestoga rocket. It was rebuilt to accommodate Orbital’s rocket and cargo ship. Despite some slip ups, the launch pad is now ready.

But Antares and Cygnus aren’t ready to fly together quite yet. Instead, Antares will carry a Cygnus “mass simulator” and several tiny satellites. The rocket is expected to reach between 155 miles and 185 miles up. If the 10-minute test flight goes well, the ship and its rocket will launch together in June.

The team at Orbital is excited to see the test flight of its Antares rocket, which measures in at 131 feet tall. Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski revealed a bit of possible rivalry between the two private space exploration companies when he commented, “XpaceX looks like they’ve done a pretty good job. Now it’s our turn at bat.”

If you’re on the East Coast, it is possible you will see the Antares rocket launch — and maybe even hear it as it launches into the atmosphere. Orbital CEO Frank Culbertson, a former NASA astronaut, commented, “It’s going to be the biggest, brightest and loudest thing ever launched from Wallops [Flight Facility]. It’s going to be visible up and down the East Coast.”

The Antares rocket is scheduled for lift off at 5 pm EDT.

[Image via NASA]