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Space Books

Commercial rocket gets new name as debut launch nears

Posted: December 12, 2011

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Orbital Sciences has rebranded its new commercial rocket that will ferry provisions and equipment to the International Space Station starting next year -- changing the booster's name from the Taurus 2 to Antares.

An artist's concept of the rocket launching from Wallops. Credit: Orbital
The first launch is planned for February from the pad under construction at Wallops Island, Virginia. That will be a qualification test-flight of the rocket in advance of launching a NASA-sponsored demonstration later in the spring to propel the Cygnus cargo ship to a linkup with the space station.

The company has been working on the new rocket for four years, bringing the design to fruition for entrance into the medium-size payload market of the launch industry. Orbital's other rocket lines -- Pegasus, Taurus XL and Minotaur -- are suited for smaller satellites and cargo weights.

The Taurus XL, which shared virtually no commonality with the Taurus 2, suffered back-to-back launch failures when its nose cone didn't separate during a pair of NASA environmental satellite-deployment missions from Vandenberg Air Force Base in the past two years.

Giving the Taurus 2 a new name certainly won't hurt breaking any links in public perceptions with the Taurus XL.

In announcing the new name Monday, Orbital said it made the move "to clear up any marketplace confusion and provide clear differentiation between this new launch vehicle and our Taurus XL rocket."

The rocket's new logo. Credit: Orbital
"Antares is significantly different - it serves the medium-class space launch market and its liquid fuel first stage technology is major departure from previous Orbital space launch vehicles. In addition, a project of this scale and significance deserves its own name like Orbital's Pegasus, Taurus and Minotaur rocket programs that have come before it," the company said.

The name Antares comes from the "supergiant" star located in the constellation Scorpius and has a red hue when observed by the naked eye. It was picked, Orbital says, because it "is one of the brightest stars in the skies and we expect the Antares rocket to be one of the brightest stars in the space launch vehicle market. Orbital selected the name in keeping with the company's tradition of using Greek-derived celestial names for launch vehicles."

An artist's concept of the rocket. Credit: Orbital
Antares is a two-stage rocket combined of liquid- and solid-propellant motors. The kerosene and liquid oxygen-fed first stage is equipped with two AJ26-62 powerplants from Soviet stockpiles that U.S. engine-maker Aerojet has prepped for use. Tanks and assembly of the stage structures are provided by firms in the Ukraine that also make the successful Zenit launcher. Antares' second stage is a solid-fuel Castor 30B motor produced by ATK.

Following the two test flights in the first half of 2012, Antares will begin a series of operational Cygnus resupply missions to the International Space Station later in the year. NASA has awarded Orbital a deal covering 8 flights valued at $1.9 billion to deliver cargo to the orbiting outpost through 2015 in a commercial arrangement that replaces the retired space shuttles for hauling supplies.

Under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services project, or COTS, NASA invested seed money with Orbital and SpaceX to develop the means of trucking cargo to the station.

Orbital's COTS deal is worth up to $288 million, of which the company has received $261.5 million for completing 23 out of 29 progress milestones so far.

Orbital also hopes to secure the rights to launch commercial, civil and military satellites aboard the Antares. Officials are studying options to build an additional launch base on the west coast.