Orbital Sciences Corporation (registered on the New York Stock Exchange as ORB, though commonly referred to as Orbital) is an American company which specializes in the manufacturing and launch of small- and medium-class space and rocket systems. Their client base includes the likes of the US Department of Defense and NASA. A pretty sizeable company, counting around 3800 employees of which half are engineers and scientists, Orbital was founded in 1982. The company conducted their 500th mission back in 2006 already and are currently projected to do more than a billion dollars in annual revenue.
Analysing the company very top-level, it consists of three segments. Launch Vehicles is where they develop rockets and engines of all sorts for different purposes, military and civilian. Satellite and Space Systems is where their geosynchronous Earth orbit communication satellites and other space-based communications service come from. Perhaps the most interesting – definitely for our focus here – is the Advanced Space Program where they besides developing small and medium class satellites for national security space systems also keep themselves busy with working on projects for human space flight and planetary exploration.
Orbital is involved with two prominent NASA programs: the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)/Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). More on those another time but the long story short, NASA started using private companies (both SpaceX and Orbital are contracted) recently for cost-effective supply missions to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. The Obama Administration is looking to expand this approach with partnerships to send NASA astronauts to the space station as soon as 2017.
Orbital launched its new Antares® rocket (a two-stage launch vehicle) for the first time in 2013 – see above for a fascinating time lapse video of its preparation for launch – and its Cygnus™ cargo logistics spacecraft is next scheduled to travel to the ISS mid December. They are pretty active on social media, and it is definitely worth checking out their YouTube channel as well where you can find gems like below’s highlights of their Cygnus demo mission – electronic dance tunes included. Definitely a company we will be following closely!
With the space race heating up, there are still new companies throwing their hat into the ring. Enter Paul Allen, who made his fortunes by founding Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, a company he remained its chief technologist of until his departure in 1983. These days he is a prolific investor and philanthropist, whose first major public interaction with the space industry was the funding of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, which won the coveted Ansari X-Prize competition. Allen’s stamp is clearly all over the company, from it being “A Paul G. Allen Project”, to the quotes you can find back on every single one of the pages on their website, coming out of his book Idea Man. So what is this company all about?
In a nutshell, Stratolaunch Systems was founded in 2011, forming a team between Scaled Composites and Orbital, to build a derivative of SpaceShipTwo’s carrier aircraft, the one used by Richard Branson‘s Virgin Galactic. Based in Huntsvilla, Alabama, the company finished its second hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California earlier this year, and it is there where they will build the next iteration of WhiteKnightTwo on a much larger scale. In fact, its wingspan would be larger than a football field, making it absolutely enormous and by wingspan the largest aircraft to ever fly! It would be able to transport a multi-stage booster – official name: Pegasus II – to high altitude before releasing it, at which point the rocket will continue its journey into orbit prior to delivering its payload. The company doesn’t necessarily qualify yet for what we usually focus on, i.e. human space travel, but with Allen and Rutan at the helm nothing seems impossible. Check out the video below:
“By the end of the decade, Stratolaunch will bring airport-like operations to launch.” While no definitive schedule has been produced yet, Stratolaunch hopes to have their carrier plane ready for test flights by 2017. Not to worry though for frequent visitors to JFK or Heathrow, the plane will be far too big to use the tarmac of any normal airport. Definitely a project to follow though, so stay tuned for more on them as it becomes available.