WASHINGTON Jan 9 An unmanned Orbital Sciences
Corp. Antares rocket blasted off on Thursday bound for the
International Space Station to deliver the first of eight cargo
ships for NASA.
The 13-story rocket lifted off its seaside launch pad in
Wallops Island, Virginia, at 1:07 p.m. EST/1807 GMT, putting the
Cygnus freighter on track for an early Sunday rendezvous with
Launch, which was broadcast live on NASA Television, was
delayed twice this week, first by cold weather and then by high
space radiation stemming from a massive solar flare on Tuesday.
Both conditions could have impacted critical rocket systems.
Orbital Sciences is one of two firms hired by NASA
to fly cargo to the station, a $100 billion project of 15
nations, following the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.
Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX,
is preparing for its third supply run on Feb. 22 from Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Thursday's launch was the third for Antares, a medium-lift
rocket that Orbital also is marketing for satellite launches.
"We are negotiating with people with other payloads besides
the Cygnus spacecraft and intend to fly more cargo out of
Wallops," Orbital Sciences executive vice president Frank
Culbertson told reporters during a prelaunch news conference on
Tuesday. He declined to elaborate on prospective customers.
The company holds a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to fly
eight Cygnus cargo ships to the station, a permanently staffed
research outpost that flies about 250 miles (about 400 km) above
SpaceX has a separate 12-flight NASA contract worth $1.6
Orbital Sciences and SpaceX previously received a combined
$686 million from NASA to help develop their rockets, capsules
and launch sites.
Orbital Sciences' Antares rockets fly from a commercial
space port carved out of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in
Virginia. SpaceX's NASA missions launch from Cape Canaveral Air
Force Station in Florida.
Orbital Sciences debuted its Antares rocket in April 2013
and made a successful test run to the space station five months
later. It planned to start flying cargo in December, but NASA
delayed the flight to tackle a high-priority repair to the
station's cooling system.
Cygnus is loaded with 3,221 pounds (1461 kg) of equipment
and supplies for the station, including science experiments,
computers and replacement parts for NASA's spacesuits.
The capsule also holds food, fresh fruit and belated
Christmas gifts for the crew. "We haven't changed them out for
Valentine's cards," Culbertson quipped.
The freighter is due to arrive at the station shortly after
6 a.m. EST/1100 GMT on Sunday.