NASA has selected Orbital Sciences to demonstrate commercial cargo transport services to the International Space Station. The US space agency will provide $170 million towards the $320 million cost of developing and demonstrating Orbital's Taurus II launcher and Cygnus spacecraft.
Space Exploration Technologies already has a similar agreement under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme. But NASA was forced to look for another partner after cancelling Rocketplane-Kistler's contract when it failed to raise the required commercial financing.
Dulles, Virginia-based launcher and satellite manufacturer Orbital says its COTS demonstration mission is scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2010, from NASA's Wallops Island facility off Virginia.
The company says it will then be prepared to carry out "several" follow-on operational COTS missions in 2011, and to conduct as many as eight ISS cargo flights a year by 2012 and 2013.
NASA hopes the COTS programme will be able take over cargo, and possibly crew, transport to the ISS as soon as possible after the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010.
Cygnus approaches the ISS © Orbital Sciences
Orbital says the Cygnus manoeuvring spacecraft, launched on the Taurus II medium-lift rocket, will be capable of delivering 2,300kg of cargo to the ISS and returning 1,200kg of cargo to Earth. The automated spacecraft will have interchangeable modules for pressurised and unpressurised cargo.
The company says it will provide $150 million towards the COTS programme, including development of the Taurus II. COTS will be the anchor mission for the new launcher.
Taurus II at Wallops © Orbital Sciences