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Antares rocket blasts off from Wallops Island, lighting up East Coast

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Cygnus launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and is headed to the International Space Station with about 7,400 pounds of supplies.
NASA

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Thousands of early-risers gazed skyward, then cheered, Monday morning as a 130-foot-tall rocket cut a fiery path against an inky backdrop above the waters off Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket launched at 4:44 a.m. ET — not with a bang but with a shuddering boom that resounded for miles in every direction.

There it was for the ninth time and the eighth that could be called a success: NASA’s version of FedEx ferrying 7,400 pounds  of cargo to the International Space Station.

“A night launch is just magnificent,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station program manager. “It lights up not only the rocket but the entire area. It’s like a star going up.”

As the countdown clock ticked below 15 minutes, the crowd a few miles away at the Wallops Flight Facility visitors center grew quiet. Barely anyone dared to speak above a murmur. 

Nov. 12: Antares cargo rocket blasts off from NASA Wallops in Va.

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Kirk Johnson and his wife, Lea Nora, of Columbia, Va., had a decent view of the launch site from their hotel balcony in Chincoteague, Va. But they decided to move a couple miles closer, joining the crowd of hundreds at the visitors center.

“This will be a better perspective,” he said as the countdown wound down.

When it finally reached zero, there came a glow in the distance and, after a few eternal seconds, a gathering roar. Tensions melted and voices filled the muggy air once again.

“That was crazy,” Mikenzi Snyder, a 20-year-old college student from Ohio, said afterward. “It was unbelievable. My inner nerd is freaking out.”

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Johnson, for his part, felt vindicated by his decision to brave the crowds.

“Boy, was that cool!” he exclaimed on the walk back to his car. “That was worth it.”

The rocket launch treated early risers along the East Coast to a cosmic light show, where skies were clear. The area of visibility stretched from New England to the Carolinas, and as far inland as Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C.

Minutes after liftoff, the Antares rocket separated from the Cygnus spacecraft as expected, setting the soup can-shaped vehicle on a course to the space station and its six astronauts by Thursday morning.

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Orbital, based in Dulles, Va., is one of two private contractors that carry supplies to the floating laboratory on NASA’s behalf. The other is Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Inclement weather delayed the launch from Sunday to Monday and nearly forced another day of waiting. 

As it happened, the rocket took off at the very end of its five-minute window to allow a cell of clouds to drift on to the east, said Kurt Eberly, Orbital’s Antares deputy program manager. Engineers were primarily concerned with the engines triggering lightning on their way through the low bank of clouds.

In rocket science, few enterprises are ever routine — and such was the case Monday.

Orbital’s crew had to fix a nitrogen regulator on the launch pad shortly before liftoff, Eberly said. And two of the three local radar systems crashed at one point, threatening to delay the flight. (At least two are required to be in service at the time of a launch.) 

By the time the countdown reached zero, all three were operating properly, Eberly said.

“We were working a few issues we had to fight through,” he said.

The Cygnus is carrying one of its heaviest payloads to date — 7,400 pounds of supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations, NASA said. Highlights of the more than 200 experiments on board include:

• A “cold atom lab” that can lower temperatures to a billionth of a degree above zero. Researchers hope to learn more about nearly motionless atoms for use in applications such as atomic clocks, quantum computers and sensors.

• A Penn State-led test to see whether cement can be used in the construction of space habitats. 

• Three tiny “CubeSat” satellites, each about the size of a cereal box.

Chaitali Parashare, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, traveled across the country to watch her project get shot into space Monday. She worked on an experiment that will test using multiple CubeSats to monitor rain and clouds more continuously than the existing method of using a single large satellite.

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She recalled delivering her contribution — a device that translates radar signals into computer language — and then delivering her second child, a boy, the following day. Her now-18-month-old son was perched in her lap Monday at the visitors center.

“It’s my first space project,” said Parashare. “I had lots of fun working on it.”

Under ideal circumstances, the glare of the Antares rocket may have been visible as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as South Carolina, Orbital estimated. But Monday’s patchy skies provided a not-so-ideal atmosphere for viewing, at least locally.

It has been more than three years since an Orbital rocket exploded above the launchpad, destroying all cargo and causing $15 million in damage to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. The program restarted at Wallops after a year of repairs and a switch to new type of engine.

Monday’s launch was Orbital’s third at Wallops since the October 2014 incident.  

Cygnus is expected to depart from the station on July 15. It will then deploy the CubeSats. Carrying several tons of trash, the spacecraft will break apart during a fiery reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, NASA officials say.

Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Jeremy Cox on Twitter: @Jeremy_Cox

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