Sunday, April 7, 2013

Advances in Commercial Space

Antares rocket moves to the launch pad.

Some significant steps are being made in the effort for private companies (as in not government agencies like NASA) this week. Let's start with the imminent launch of the Antares rocket. While the attention lately has been on the obvious success of SpaceX and their Dragon capsule and Falcon rocket,  they'll soon have some competition. The Antares rocket is built by Orbital Sciences, the company which has made successful small satellite launches with the Pegasus winged rocket which is carried aloft by a large jetliner, then released and launched into low orbit. They also have made launches with the Minotaur, a small satellite delivery system based on surplus military missiles. Now, the company is pinning high hopes on the Antares, a larger rocket launched in conventional manner. 

Antares being lifted to upright position on the pad. Both Antares pics by NASA.

Unlike SpaceX's use of a pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Orbital Science team has built their test launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia on the Atlantic Coast. They are using Pad 0A, which is owned by the newly created Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority which has named their part of the Wallops Island facility, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Wallops Island is famous for its use  of launching sounding rockets and small satellites into the upper atmosphere and low orbit since the early 1960's. Now, OS plans to launch the Antares into low Earth Orbit in their bid to become the second company able to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Eventually they want to launch satellites weighing up to six tons into Earth orbit. You can read all about the upcoming launch, scheduled for April 17-18, at SpaceFlight Now's website:


Artist creation of Boeing CST-100 capsule on Atlas V rocket. Credit: Boeing.

Hurray for Boeing! They have just recently completed the Preliminary Design Review for mating their CST-100 space capsule to the Atlas V rocket. The adapter ring will connect the wider bottom of the crew capsule's service module with the obviously narrower upper stage of the Atlas rocket.  Although just an artists view at the moment, the picture above looks so real we can easily foresee what we'll be looking at when the first test missions launch in 2017 (hopefully earlier). It's looking like Boeing may become the first commercial provider to launch not just cargo, but astronauts to the ISS. 

Spaceship 2 in a test glide releasing nitrogen gas. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

We're getting much closer to the power-up tests for the new winged spaceship that will haul paying customers into sub-orbital spaceflight. Virgin Galactic has been drop-gliding its new spacecraft recently, and recent tests have been fully fueled although the rocket motor was not ignited. Rumors say the test may come as early as this month.

You can read more about SpaceShip 2, and Boeing's progress at the website for Parabolic Arc:

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