A new commercial rocket designed to launch unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station passed a key engine test Friday night (Feb. 22), setting the stage for the booster's debut flight in the months ahead, NASA officials say.
The Virginia-based company Orbital Sciences Corp. test-fired the first stage engines of its new Antares rocket at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va. — the home of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. The so-called "hot fire" test ignited the Antares rocket's engines for 29 seconds without ever leaving the launch pad.
Friday's engine test was aimed at verifying the fueling systems at the spaceport's launch Pad-0A and Antares rocket first stage would perform as expected during an actual mission, Orbital officials said.
"Initial review of the test data indicate the primary objectives of the test were accomplished," Orbital officials wrote in a status update. "The pad and fueling systems will undergo post-test inspections and any necessary reconditioning work will be performed."
Orbital Sciences is one of two private spaceflight companies with billion-dollar NASA contracts to provide unmanned cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station. Under its $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract, Orbital will make at least eight delivery flights to the space station using its Antares rocket and robotic Cygnus spacecraft. The first Antares rocket test flight is expected later this year. [Antares Rocket and Cygnus Explained (Infographic)]
The Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is the other company with a NASA contract for unmanned space station deliveries. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract to fly at least 12 missions to the space station using its Dragon space capsules and Falcon 9 rocket. The company launched both a test flight and a bona fide delivery mission to the space station in 2012. The second delivery flight under the contract is slated to launch on March 1.
"This pad test is an important reminder of how strong and diverse the commercial space industry is in our nation," Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "A little more than one year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we had a U.S company resupplying the International Space Station. Now, another is taking the next critical steps to launch from America's newest gateway to low-Earth orbit."
Orbital plans to launch its Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, which is located on Virginia's eastern shore. NASA's Wallops Flight Facility there has launched more than 16,000 rockets in the last 67 years, though Orbital's Antares flights would be the first space station-bound missions launched from Virginia.
With the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in 2011, the space agency is relying on new private rockets and spacecraft to ferry cargo — and eventually astronauts — to and from low-Earth orbit. NASA is currently dependent on Russia, Europe and Japan for cargo deliveries to the space station. Russia's Soyuz spacecraft are the only vehicles currently available to ferry astronauts to and from the station.
Orbital's engine Friday test marked the company's second attempt to check the Antares rocket's dual AJ26 rocket engines, which are designed to provide 680,000 pounds of thrust. A first attempt on Feb. 13 was aborted before engine ignition due to a "low pressurization" detection during a nitrogen purge in the rocket's aft engine compartment, Orbital officials said in an update.
Orbital officials are now working toward test flights of the Antares rocket and its Cygnus spacecraft. The first demonstration flight falls under a separate contract for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, and is expected to launch later this year.
This story was updated Saturday at 6 a.m. ET to include information on the success of Friday's Antares rocket engine test and comments from NASA and Orbital Sciences.