Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. announced Dec. 12 that it has picked “Antares” as the new moniker for its Taurus 2 rocket, a medium-class booster slated to launch the firm’s unmanned Cygnus spacecraft on space station cargo flights for NASA. The rocket’s first test launch is scheduled for February. Orbital officials also hope the Antares rocket can serve other civilian and military customers as well.

“We are transitioning to the Antares identity primarily because a launch vehicle of this scale and significance deserves its own name, just like Orbital’s Pegasus, Taurus and Minotaur rocket programs that have come before it,” Orbital President and Chief Executive David W. Thompson said in a statement. “The successful introduction of the Antares launcher, with its contribution to our COTS and CRS programs along with future sales to other customers, is a linchpin of the company’s long-term growth and profitability strategy.”

COTS and CRS refer to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Resupply Services programs, respectively. These efforts will coordinate the use of private spaceships to deliver cargo to the space station.

The Antares rocket takes its new name from the star Antares, which is one of the brightest stars in the night sky and the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius.

The rocket stands about 40 meters tall and is designed to launch payloads of more than 5,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. It will make its initial launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va.

Orbital officials said they chose the new name to avoid confusion with the company’s Taurus XL rocket, which is a different booster that suffered consecutive launch failures — first in 2009 and then in March of this year — due to nose cone separation issues.

“Antares 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 officials explain on the company’s Antares website. “Orbital selected the name in keeping with the company’s tradition of using Greek-derived celestial names for launch vehicles.”

This is not the first time the name Antares has been chosen for a spaceship. In 1971, NASA’s Apollo 14 mission to the Moon carried a lunar lander dubbed Antares. NASA astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell rode the Antares lander down to the lunar surface and spent 33 hours and 31 minutes on the Moon before returning to their command module in orbit.

Orbital Sciences currently plans to launch at least two Antares rocket test flights in the first half of 2012. The company currently has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to provide eight cargo delivery flights to the space station using the Antares rocket and the Cygnus spacecraft.



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