WASHINGTON — The long-awaited hot-fire test of the core stage of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket will take place Feb. 12, a company executive said here at the Federal Aviation Administration’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference.

“We will do our first hot-fire test next Tuesday,” Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group said Feb. 6 during a panel discussion. “Keep your fingers crossed.

“About a month later, maybe five weeks later, we will do our first test flight,” Culbertson said.

The test flight, the rocket’s first to orbit, will not carry the Cygnus cargo vehicle the company will use to resupply the international space station under the $1.9 million, eight-flight Commercial Resupply Services contract it signed with NASA in 2008. Instead, Antares will loft a Cygnus mass simulator equipped with sensors and video that will record the separation of the rocket’s payload fairing, Culbertson said.

The rocket will haul the mass simulator to the same orbital location from which Cygnus would begin its rendezvous with the space station during a routine cargo delivery mission.

If all goes well with Antares’ debut — something that cannot occur unless the Feb. 12 hot-fire is successful — Orbital will send Cygnus on a full-up demonstration cargo run to the space station three or four months later, Culbertson said. Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), NASA’s other Commercial Resupply Services partner, completed a similar cargo demonstration in May followed by its first paid cargo run in October. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Orbital’s Cygnus tug is not designed to return cargo to Earth.

If Orbital’s demonstration mission goes according to plan, the company would fulfill the terms of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services agreement with NASA, also signed in 2008, and be cleared to start contracted cargo runs under the more lucrative Commercial Resupply Services contract.

Orbital is, as SpaceX was, years late in conducting its first demonstration cargo run to the space station. Orbital has blamed a long string of delays on the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, from which the Dulles, Va., company will launch Antares.

Orbital originally expected to conduct its first and only Cygnus demonstration mission by the end of 2010.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is located in a corner of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Va. It hosts the range’s only liquid-fueled rocket pad, designated 0-A. The state of Virginia operates this pad and is charging Orbital $1.5 billion a launch for the 10 launches the company agreed last year to conduct from the spaceport.



‘Unexpected Obstacles’ Push Antares Debut to the Fall

Orbital Rolls Antares to Pad To Prep for Hold-down Test