Antares successfully launches from NASA Wallops to the ISS

A plane thwarted Saturday’s launch, but Sunday morning an Antares booster rocketed off flawlessly on an unmanned resupply mission from Virginia to the International Space Station as onlookers cheered and whooped.

Orbital ATK’s Antares 230 launched at 7:19 a.m. under chilly skies from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore.

“Beautiful morning, beautiful launch,” said Dan Hartman, NASA’s deputy space station program manager at Johnson Space Center in a live-streamed press conference. “It was great to put a rumble in the air here and get Cygnus off the ground and on its way to the International Space Station.”

Antares boosted a Cygnus commercial cargo craft packing about 7,400 pounds of groceries, hardware and science experiments for the space station crew. It’s also carrying some Thanksgiving foodstuffs and Christmas gifts, NASA said.

Among the science payload is a 3D virtual reality camera from National Geographic to gather feed for its upcoming documentary about life aboard the ISS, a mini lab containing microclover seedlings to find out the legume’s ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into soil nitrogen while in low gravity, and two strains of E. coli bacteria to test their resistance to antibiotics in microgravity.

The launch was originally scheduled for Saturday morning, but got scrubbed about a minute from lift-off when a rogue aircraft strayed into the launch hazard zone.

Sunday’s lift-off had its own 11th-hour hiccup when boats were spotted approaching the hazard zone offshore, forcing mission control to push the launch to the end of the five-minute window. Orbital wanted to make sure the boaters were safely out of the area.

Asked if there will be stiffer penalties in future for pilots and boaters who violate the hazard zone and risk scrubbing costly resupply missions, Hartman said NASA is working already with the Federal Aviation Administration on what he expects will be “more stringent procedures” and expects to see additional measures in place for the May launch of the next Orbital spacecraft.

“It’s not a joking matter,” Hartman said. “It’s trying to keep the public safe from these hazardous operations.”

Notices to mariners and airmen are issued weeks in advance of a Wallops launch.

Kurt Eberly, Antares deputy program manager for Orbital, praised Sunday’s launch for its relative low drama.

“Compared to yesterday, today was very boring, and that’s how we like it,” said Eberly. “The more boring, the better. Can’t be boring enough.”

There was one minor issue pre-launch, he said, when they had to initiate a special nitrogen purge to accelerate a liquid oxygen burn-off in one of the main engines because it was going more slowly than expected.

That purge process caused Orbital to push the countdown to the end of the launch window, which Eberly said was fortuitous because it gave them more time to clear out the boats trending toward the hazard zone and also keep an eye on an aircraft spotted just south of the area.

The Cygnus is scheduled to arrive Tuesday at the orbiting laboratory, where at 4:50 a.m. EST flight engineer Paolo Nespoli of ESA and station commander Randy Bresnik of NASA will be waiting in the cupola to use the station’s robotic arm to capture and begin berthing the craft. NASA TV will live-stream those maneuvers beginning at 3:15 a.m. EST.

During the Cygnus’ stay, crew members will begin packing it with several tons of space station trash. On Dec. 3, it’s set to be unberthed by ground controllers and maneuvered to the topside of the Harmony module, where it will collect GPS and other navigation information helpful to the arrival of commercial crew vehicles in the future.

The following day, the robotic arm will release the Cygnus, which will depart the station and deploy its remaining CubeSats — small satellites containing even more science experiments — before it returns to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up.

Orbital named this spacecraft the SS Gene Cernan after the late Apollo astronaut who was the last man to set foot on the moon. Cernan died in January.

This is Orbital’s eighth commercial resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA. It’s the fourth successful operational launch out of the state-owned MARS. An attempt in October 2014 failed when the rocket’s first-stage engines malfunctioned and NASA had to explode the rocket as it fell back toward the pad. The engines have since been replaced and the pad repaired.

Orbital is based in Dulles, and Virginia built the spaceport to accommodate its ISS launches. The space transportation company has been awarded a second resupply contract from NASA, which is expected to continue launches from Virginia for several more years.

Contact Dietrich at 757-247-7892 or tdietrich@dailypress.com. Follow on Twitter at DP_Dietrich

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