New U.S. rocket blasts off from Virginia launch pad

Sun Apr 21, 2013 6:13pm EDT

* Antares rocket carries dummy cargo capsule on test flight

* Orbital Sciences hired by NASA to resupply space station

By Irene Klotz

April 21 (Reuters) - A privately owned rocket built in partnership with NASA to haul cargo to the International Space Station blasted off on Sunday for a debut test flight from a new commercial spaceport in Virginia.

The 13-story Antares rocket, developed and flown by Orbital Sciences Corp, lifted off at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) from a Virginia-owned and operated launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.

"Beautiful view," said NASA launch commentator Kyle Herring as live video from the rocket, broadcast on NASA TV, showed the booster riding atop a bright plume of fire above the Atlantic Ocean.

Ten minutes later, the rocket deposited its payload - a 8,380-pound (3,800-kg) dummy capsule - into an orbit 158 miles (254 km) above the planet, fulfilling the primary goal of the test flight.

Orbital Sciences and privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, hold NASA contracts worth a combined $3.5 billion to fly cargo to the space station, a $100 billion research outpost that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

On its next flight, scheduled for late June or early July, another Antares rocket will carry a Cygnus cargo ship on a demonstration mission to the station.

California-based SpaceX completed three test flights and last year began delivering cargo to the station under its $1.6 billion contract.

The debut of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket was delayed by the construction of its launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, located on the southern end of NASA's Wallops Island facility. NASA has flown thousands of smaller suborbital rockets, high-altitude balloons and research aircraft from Wallops over the past 68 years.

Standing 130 feet (40 metres) tall and packing 740,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff, Antares is the largest rocket to fly from Wallops Island. In addition to station cargo runs, Orbital Sciences has a separate contract to launch a NASA moon probe aboard a Minotaur 5 rocket from Wallops in August.

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