Big Rocket Test Launching from Virginia Island Wednesday

NASA's Wallops Flight Facility will see the first launch of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on April 17, 2013.
The sun rises over NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, where the first Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences stands poised to launch on its test flight from Wallops Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Liftoff set for 5 pm ET on April 17, 2013. (Image credit: Brea Reeves/NASA Wallops Flight Facility)

It's almost show time for a new private rocket on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

A commercially built rocket designed to launch unmanned cargo ships to the International Space Station is counting down toward its first-ever flight test this week from Wallops Island, Va., a small island that is home to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility and a young commercial spaceport. Liftoff for the rocket, called Antares, is currently set for Wednesday, April 17, at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).

"The team is beyond excited," Barron Berneski, spokesman for the Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corp. that built the Antares rocket, told in an email. [See photos of the Antares rocket test flight preparations]

Berneski said Orbital Sciences engineers are currently working to replace a valve on the Antares rocket that thwarted an engine test firing on Saturday (April 13).

"Late in the countdown, at about T-16 minutes, the test was halted because the launch team had detected a technical anomaly in the process," Berneski said of the valve glitch in a statement. "A replacement unit will be installed within 24 hours with the goal of maintaining the April 17 launch date."

The upcoming Antares launch is the highest profile launch yet from the Wallops Flight Facility, which was founded in 1945 and currently serves as NASA's home for balloon science missions and small sounding rocket launches that don't reach all the way into orbit. It is located on the southern tip of Wallops Island, which it shares with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a staging ground for commercial rocket launches overseen by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.

Orbital Sciences plans to launch at least eight Antares rockets from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, nicknamed MARS, to deliver tons of cargo to the International Space Station under a $1.9 billion deal with NASA set in 2008. The company is one of two private spaceflight firms with a commercial cargo delivery deal. The California-based SpaceX, which has flown three missions to the station since 2012, is the other and has a $1.6 billion contract to provide 12 NASA cargo flights.

But unlike SpaceX, which launches its Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon space capsules toward the station from Cape Canaveral in Florida — a mainstay launching ground for American manned and unmanned spaceflight — Orbital Sciences picked the MARS site for Antares flights.

"MARS has completed construction and testing operations on its launch complex at Wallops Island, the first all-new large-scale liquid-fuel launch site to be built in the U.S. in decades," Orbital Sciences CEO David Thompson said in October 2012 when the company took control of its launch pad at the site.

The COTS Demonstration Cygnus spacecraft completed a milestone when its Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM) was attached to the Service Module (SM), and all mechanical flight connections were attached. This image was taken April 2, 2013. (Image credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation / NASA)

Wednesday's Antares rocket launch will not carry a full-fledged Cygnus spacecraft when it blasts off. Since the mission is a test flight, it will carry a "mass simulator" designed to mimic the weight of a real cargo ship.

Orbital Sciences has dubbed the mission Antares A-ONE and expect the rocket to reach a maximum altitude of between 155 miles and 185 miles (250 and 300 kilometers) above Earth. The mission may also carry a set of tiny satellites for NASA, according to previous mission descriptions.

The Antares rocket is a two-stage booster designed to launch robotic cargo ships called Cygnus on one-way trips. The Cygnus spacecraft is a one-use vehicle and is designed to burn up in Earth's atmosphere at the end of its mission instead of returning cargo to Earth like SpaceX's Dragon capsules.

If all goes well, Orbital Sciences hopes to launch the first official Antares rocket and Cygnus flight toward the space station later this year.

"There's still a lot of work to do ahead of the launch, but after nearly five years from concept design to actual launch, it feels great to be at the finish line of the R&D effort and at the starting line for our next big new product line, serving not just NASA cargo delivery, but other launch markets as well,' Berneski said.

Visit for complete coverage of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket test this week.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.