WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — A new commercial spacecraft built to haul cargo to the International Space Station will launch into space from Virginia's Eastern Shore Wednesday (Sept. 18), and it just might be visible from a wide swath of the U.S. East Coast, NASA says.
The new Cygnus spacecraft, built by the spaceflight company Orbital Sciences Corp., is poised to launch into orbit atop the firm's Antares rocket Wednesday at 10:50 a.m. EDT (1450 GMT) in a major test flight from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility here. The rocket launch could be visible to observers as far north as New York City and as far south as South Carolina, weather permitting.
"If you're anywhere on the central East Coast there, you should be able to get a glimpse of the launch tomorrow," NASA test director Sarah Daugherty said in a press conference here. [See launch viewing maps for Orbital Science's Wednesday rocket launch]
What you might see
Because the Cygnus launch will occur in the daytime, observers will not get spectacular nighttime rocket launch photos like those seen during the Sept. 6 launch of NASA's LADEE moon probe, which blasted off from Wallops atop a smaller Minotaur V rocket — also built by Orbital Sciences.
Daugherty said that, depending on their location and weather, observers should be able to see the Antares rocket's plume and engine flames. You can watch the Cygnus spacecraft launch live on SPACE.com Wednesday, courtesy of NASA TV.
"It certainly won't look like a regular contrail," Daugherty said.
Orbital Sciences has released a series of viewing maps showing how the rocket launch will look from various locations, including parts of Washington, D.C., New York, Maryland and Virginia.
Editor's Note: If you snap a photo of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket streaking toward space, or any other amazing sky view that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Target: Space Station
The Cygnus spacecraft forms the heart of a $1.9 billion deal between the Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences and NASA to provide at least eight cargo delivery missions. If all goes well, the Cygnus spacecraft will soar into orbit Wednesday and undergo several days of in-flight checks before it arrives at the space station early Sunday (Sept. 22), Orbital officials said.
"Launching Antares tomorrow is going to be a major step for our program," said Orbital Sciences executive vice president Frank Culbertson.
Orbital Sciences is one of two commercial spaceflight firms under contract for NASA resupply flights. The other company, California-based SpaceX founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has a $1.6 billion deal for at least 12 cargo missions using its own Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon space capsules.
SpaceX has flown two cargo missions so far. Its Dragon capsules are also equipped with a heat shield, so they can return experiment results and other gear to Earth, unlike Cygnus.
NASA picked Orbital Sciences as a cargo ship partner in 2008 under a $288 million award with the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Wednesday's Cygnus launch will mark the last milestone for that program and includes the last $2.5 million of that award, clearing the way for Orbital's full-up delivery flights.
Orbital Sciences launched its first Antares rocket on April 21 during a smooth test flight that set the stage for Wednesday's Cygnus liftoff. The Antares rocket is a two-stage booster that stands 131 feet (40 meters) tall and includes a liquid-fueled first stage and a solid-propellant second stage.
The first stage is powered by twin AJ26 rocket engines, which are upgraded versions of NK-33 engines originally developed for Russia's N-1 moon rocket in the 1960s and '70s. The second stage is a solid Castor 30 rocket motor built by Alliant Techsystems (ATK).
Orbital Sciences will launch the Antares from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a commercial spaceport located on NASA's Wallops Flight Facility grounds.
The cylindrical Cygnus spacecraft was built for Orbital by the Italian aerospace company Thales Alenia Space and is expected to carry up to 5,952 pounds (2,700 kilograms) in its enhanced configuration. For this first flight, the Cygnus is packed with about 1,300 pounds (589 kg) of cargo for the three Expedition 37 astronauts living on the space station now.
SPACE.com's launch webcast of the Cygnus spacecraft will begin at 10:15 a.m. EDT (1415 GMT). SPACE.com partner Spaceflight now is also offering updates via its Cygnus Mission Status Center, which will also include a launch webcast.
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Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com 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 Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, 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 Space.com 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.