Orbital Sciences Corp., a Fairfax, Va., company that joined a handful of companies around the world that have launched satellites into orbit by successfully placing a 440-pound government payload into space last year, said yesterday that it has been awarded a license from the U.S. Department of Transportation for three commercial launches.
Unlike its historic Pegasus rocket, which carried an experimental satellite into orbit for a division of the Department of Defense in April after being dropped from the wing of a B-52 bomber, the new launches will be suborbital and will blast off from Cape Canaveral.
The customer for three launches is the University of Alabama at Huntsville. The university will use the trips into space for a number of experiments, including the production of polyurethane foam that could be used as support and insulation of structures used in the construction of satellites or a space station.
Samuel McManus, a professor of chemistry at the University of Alabama and one of the staff members working on the experiment, said the foam made on Earth is not suitable for such applications.
Orbital will use its Prospector rockets for the launches.
Though tiny compared with the space shuttle, the Prospector is capable of pushing a 2,000-pound payload 600 miles into space. Such a trip allows for 13 to 15 minutes of gravity-free flight for experiments.
Barbara Zadina, a spokeswoman for Orbital, said the cost of the launches for the University of Alabama is still being negotiated but that costs for Prospector flights range from $1.5 million to $2 million.
The first flight for the university is scheduled for March, followed by a second in December. No date has been set for the third. The University of Alabama at Huntsville is one of 16 centers designated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the commercial development of space.