Private rocket on space odyssey

Orbital Sciences Corp has launched the first flight of its unmanned Antares rocket to the International Space Station, as NASA forges ahead with its plan to privatise US space missions.

The company's new Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus capsule is a 36-day-long mission and is the final test before Orbital can make regular cargo deliveries in its $1.9 billion NASA contract.

Orbital's flight is its first attempt to fly to the space station, an orbiting research laboratory that conducts experiments in physics, meteorology, biology and other fields.

If the mission is successful, Orbital could begin launching more capsules to the space station as early as December.

The Cygnus capsule is designed to burn up in the atmosphere on re-entry.


NASA is counting on private companies such as Orbital to resupply the space station, a task formerly done by its own space shuttles. NASA retired the fleet in 2011.

Another company, SpaceX, has flown three cargo missions to the station and has a $1.6 billion contract for a dozen deliveries in the coming years. But NASA doesn't want to rely on just one provider of such a critical service.

The continued operation of the space station requires regular and dependable delivery of ''upmass,'' in space industry jargon.

Orbital has a contract for eight cargo missions to the station over four years, with the first launch scheduled for December.

At the moment, US astronauts commute to the space station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Sir Richard Branson has said he has sold 700 tickets for his Virgin Galactic space flights and reckons he will be ready to launch within a ''matter of months''.

The billionaire founder of the Virgin Group told Britain's Institute of Directors' annual convention that the ticket sales, which reportedly cost £125,000 each, have helped to fund the project.

Sir Richard said the space flights would be only three hours long to keep the costs down. He has grand plans for the venture, including a space hotel.

Knowing that NASA would never send ordinary people into orbit, he decided to launch his own space tourism company.

''Only 500 people have ever been to space,'' he said. ''We'll put the same number up in the first year.''

Bloomberg, agencies