Orbital Sciences' Private Antares Rocket: 5 Surprising Facts
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Have Rocket, Will TravelA new private rocket launched into space for the first time April 21, 2013, marking a leap forward for American commercial spaceflight.
Orbital Sciences Corp.'s unmanned Antares rocket blasted off from Virginia's Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) located at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, helping pave the way for eventual cargo missions to the International Space Station. Orbital signed a $1.9 billion deal with NASA to fly eight unmanned supply missions using Antares and the company's robotic Cygnus spacecraft. Cygnus and Antares could be launched together on a demonstration mission to the space station later in 2013, company officials say.Here are five things you might not have known about Antares: FIRST STOP: Engines Made for the Moon
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Made for the MoonThe Antares rocket's first stage uses 2 Aerojet AJ26 rocket engines fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene (RP-1). The AJ26 is based on the NK-33 engine, which was originally developed to launch Russia's giant N-1 moon rocket in the 1960s.
N-1 was the Soviet answer to America's Saturn V rocket, used to launch astronauts to the moon during the space agency's Apollo program. The Soviet heavy-lifting rocket, however, was never launched successfully.
Next: The largest rocket
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Virginia's Biggest RocketWallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore has traditionally been NASA's launching ground for small sounding rockets and high-altitude balloon missions, but Antares' launch from MARS is helping broaden the site's scope.
Engineers refurbished an old launch pad to accommodate Antares, whose launch today is perhaps the highest-profile liftoff from Wallops since its establishment in 1945. Most big manned and unmanned American missions have historically been run from Florida's Cape Canaveral, including the space station cargo launches of Orbital's competitor, SpaceX.
Weather permitting, today's Antares launch could be seen as far south as Charleston, S.C. and as far north as Portland, Maine. The rocket should be visible as a bright streak of light in Washington, D.C., assuming clouds doesn't get in the way.
Next: Space legacy
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A Space Name LegacyThe rocket's name comes from a long cosmic legacy.
"Antares" is the name of a red supergiant star in the constellation Scorpius. It's one of the largest stars ever found, with a diameter several hundred times that of the sun. The star is about 600 light-years from Earth, and is among the top 20 brightest stars in the night sky.
The Apollo Lunar Module used during the Apollo 14 mission was also named "Antares." The module brought a two-person crew down to the surface of the moon in 1971, making the "most precise landing to date," according to NASA reports.
Next: Key player
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Orbital Sciences and Missile DefenseThe company that developed Antares has also executed about 50 major launches for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the Air Force and the Navy to create a robust missile defense system in the United States.
Orbital Sciences creates target vehicles used in simulations to test the missile defense systems. The firm also manufactures "interceptor boosters" that can cut off possible missile launches aimed at the country.
Next: Tiny satellites
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First Test Flight Launched Tiny SatellitesThe Cygnus mass simulator on Antares's first test flight in April 2013 deployed a few tiny satellites for a commercial customer and NASA before burning up harmlessly in the Earth's atmosphere.
The satellite payload included the Dove-1 nanosatellite for a commercial client and two versions of NASA Ames Research Center's Phonesats, which are about the size of a coffee cup.