By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A second U.S. company hired by NASA to fly cargo to the International Space Station was cleared to test-fly its Antares rocket from a newly developed commercial spaceport in Virginia, officials said on Tuesday.
Orbital Sciences Corp. plans to launch its 130-foot (40-meter) -tall Antares rocket late Wednesday afternoon from the newly built Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, located at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility south of Chincoteague, Virginia.
The rocket will carry an 8,378-pound (3,800-kg) dummy capsule designed to mimic the company's Cygnus spacecraft, which is slated to debut on Antares' second flight this summer.
Like startup Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, a privately-owned firm based in Hawthorne, California, Orbital Sciences built its cargo ship in partnership with NASA. SpaceX followed up a May 2012 test flight with two cargo runs to the space station under a $1.6 billion contract.
In addition to winning $288 million from NASA for Antares and Cygnus development, Orbital holds a $1.9 billion contract to fly cargo to the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles above Earth.
SpaceX also is working to upgrade its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule to fly astronauts to the station. Orbital lost out on its bid to develop a space taxi service, but hopes to parlay its cargo-hauling business into additional government and commercial contracts.
"We feel pretty strongly that a successful test flight, and also a successful demo (run to the space station) later, will help us in our marketing a great deal," said Frank Culbertson, executive vice president with Orbital Sciences and a former astronaut and NASA manager.
The company had hoped to debut its new rocket and capsule more than a year ago, but the program was delayed due to construction and certification issues with the Wallops Island launch pad.
NASA regularly flies small suborbital rockets, high-altitude balloons and scientific airplanes from Wallops. The Antares booster will be the biggest rocket to be launched from the island.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
The goal of Wednesday's mission is to place the simulated Cygnus cargo ship into an orbit about 160 miles above the planet, demonstrating the rocket's lift capacity and the ability to separate the payload.
The test capsule is expected to remain in orbit for about two weeks before gravitational tugging by Earth will cause it to fall back into the atmosphere and incinerate.
Unlike SpaceX Dragon capsules which return intact to Earth, the Cygnus spacecraft - like the Russian, European and Japanese cargo ships that also service the station - burn up in the atmosphere after they undock.
Orbital Sciences, however, says it could keep a Cygnus spacecraft in orbit for up to about a year, enabling it to serve as a platform for science instruments and experiments after it departs the station.
The company has been a NASA, Department of Defense and commercial supplier of launch vehicles, satellites and other spacecraft since shortly after its founding in 1982. The Dulles, Va.-based firm employs about 3,600 people. Last year, it reported revenues of about $1.5 billion.
(Editing by David Adams and Paul Simao)