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Orbital test-fires engines on Antares rocket for future space station trips

Orbital Sciences Corp. lights up the engines on its Antares rocket for a hot-fire test at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia on Friday.
Orbital Sciences Corp. lights up the engines on its Antares rocket for a hot-fire test at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia on Friday.NASA

By Tariq Malik

Orbital Sciences Corp. has successfully tested the engines for a new private rocket designed to send cargo to the International Space Station.

The Virginia-based company test-fired the first-stage engines of its new Antares rocket for 30 seconds Friday night at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va. NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, also based on the island, supported the so-called static fire engine test, which involved having the Antares rocket fire its engines without leaving the launch pad.

"This pad test is an important reminder of how strong and diverse the commercial space industry is in our nation," Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement released after the test. "A little more than one year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we had a U.S company resupplying the space station, and another is now taking the next critical steps to launch from America’s newest gateway to low-Earth orbit."

Orbital Sciences is one of two private spaceflight companies with billion-dollar NASA contracts to provide unmanned cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station. Under its $1.9 billion contract, Orbital Sciences will make at least eight delivery flights to the space station using its Antares rocket and robotic Cygnus spacecraft. The first Antares rocket test flight is expected later this year. [Antares Rocket and Cygnus Explained (Infographic)]

California-based SpaceX is the other company with a NASA contract for unmanned space station deliveries. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract to fly at least 12 missions to the space station using its Dragon space capsules and Falcon 9 rocket. The company launched both a test flight and a bona fide delivery mission to the space station in 2012. The second delivery flight under the contract is slated to launch on March 1.

With NASA's retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011, the space agency is relying on new private rockets and spacecraft to ferry cargo — and eventually astronauts — to and from low-Earth orbit. NASA is currently dependent on Russia, Europe and Japan for cargo deliveries to the space station. Russia's Soyuz spacecraft are the only vehicles currently available to ferry astronauts to and from the station.  

Friday's engine test marked Orbital's second attempt to check the Antares rocket's dual AJ26 rocket engines, which are designed to provide 680,000 pounds of thrust. A first attempt on Feb. 13 was aborted before engine ignition due to a "low pressurization" detection during a nitrogen purge in the rocket's aft engine compartment, Orbital officials said.

The test took place at Pad-0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which is located on the eastern shore of Virginia. It set the stage for a full-up flight test of the Antares rocket, and then a demonstration flight as part of Orbital's contract under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, also known as COTS.

"Following the successful completion of the COTS demonstration mission to the station, Orbital will begin regular cargo resupply flights to the orbiting laboratory through NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract," NASA Wallops officials said.

This report was updated by NBC News Digital. You can follow managing editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik. Follow on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+

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