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Sunday, February 03, 2013

Antares Rocket Nears Hot-Fire Test at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on the Island

Having completed an extensive series of cold flow propellant tests, Orbital Sciences Corporation's new Antares rocket is in the final stages for a hot-fire test of the double AJ-26 refurbished rocket engines at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport launch pad on Wallops Island, Virginia, perhaps on Sunday, February 10, 2013.
"For the hot fire, Orbital will conduct a 29-second hold-down operation of the Antares first stage and its dual AJ26 rocket engines. The primary goals of the test will be to ensure that the pad’s fueling systems and the Antares stage one test article function properly in a fully operational environment, that engine ignition and shut down commands operate as designed, and that the two AJ26 first stage engines perform properly in the dual engine configuration. The test will include a full propellant loading sequence, launch countdown and engine ignition operation. The pad’s high volume water deluge system will also flow throughout the entire period of the test to protect the pad from damage and to provide general noise suppression," the commercial space launch firm recently noted.

The hot-fire test will signal the commercial space launch program at Wallops Island is entering a new phase to operational flight status. Following a host of space policy laws being adopted by the state legislature since 2007, significant state investment in the commercial launch infrastructure and standing-up an enhanced operational capability by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, Virginia's commercial spaceport will compete to expand its commercial, civil and military launch manifest to orbit.  
Antares, meanwhile, will utilize Russian-made rocket engines to boost cargo to orbit. The AJ26 are modified NK-33 engines originally designed and produced in Russia for the Russian N1 lunar launch vehicle. Aerojet purchased approximately 40 NK-33 engines in the mid-1990s and, under contract with Orbital, the company is modifying the engines specifically for the Antares rocket. Aerojet has been developing design modifications to the NK-33 since the mid-1990s to ensure that the AJ26 is suitable for commercial launchers.
The Antares rocket is one of the two contractors under NASA's commercial cargo transport program. The launch team has been busy testing its Antares rocket ahead of the launcher's inaugural flight which is being planned for March of this year from Virginia's Eastern Shore.
The Antares launch vehicle can carry nearly 6 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, while the Cygnus spacecraft will be capable of delivering 2.7 tonnes of pressurized cargo to the space station. Like Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Japan's HTV and Russia's Progress supply ships, the Cygnus spacecraft will burn up on re-entry. 

However, there are active discussions between the NASA Langley Research Center and Orbital Sciences Corporation to conduct a re-entry test of the Cygnus spacecraft with down mass cargo during one of the NASA contracted commercial missions. The re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere would be to test the new High Energy Atmospheric Re-entry Test (HEART) technology and perhaps, provide new capability for commercial vehicle re-entry in the experimental process.

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