WASHINGTON — On the face of it, the planned mid-April launch of a new commercial rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia won’t be one for the record books.
A number of barriers for commercial space companies already have been broken — for instance, SpaceX has flown to the International Space Station — and the maiden flight of Antares, a two-stage rocket built by Orbital Sciences of Virginia, is expected to do little more than prove it can put a dummy payload into orbit.
But the outcome of the test flight, and the rocket’s performance going forward, could act as an important indicator of the strength of the emerging space economy — and whether NASA made the right call in relying on commercial companies to do supply runs to the space station.
The Wallops launch also will be closely watched by Florida officials, as success there would bring more proof that the number of rivals to Cape Canaveral in the launch business is growing.
As planned, Antares is expected to launch from Wallops from April 17-19 and carry an 8,400-pound weight that mimics the Cygnus spacecraft that Orbital is building to ferry cargo to the station, possibly as soon as this summer. The spacecraft will be ready by summer, the company says.
NASA also is flying three small satellites — each the size of a coffee mug and costing less than $7,000 apiece — to test whether engineers can convert components commonly found in smartphones into a working satellite.
Each will orbit for about two weeks — sending back pictures of Earth and status updates about its battery life and temperature — in what NASA officials hope will teach them how to build cheap satellites that could monitor space weather or radiation.