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Antares, NASA's second commercial route to the International Space Station, is on the pad and getting ready for its inaugural launch on April 17.

Developed by Orbital Sciences Corp. under the U.S. agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the kerosene-fueled rocket is designed to deliver cargo to the ISS in an unmanned capsule dubbed Cygnus.

The first test flight -- the first of two Orbital needs to finish its COTS work and get its final payments -- will send an instrumented dummy Cygnus into the high-inclination orbit occupied by the space station. A second flight, tentatively set later this year, will fly close enough to the station to be grappled by its robotic arm and berthed to a pressurized module for cargo transfer.

If the flights are successful, NASA will have two ways  to deliver supplies to the six-person crew on the ISS. SpaceX, the other COTS contractor, already has delivered cargo there with its Dragon capsule, launched on its Falcon 9 rocket.

The Antares will fly from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, using a new state-owned launch pad. It is powered by two modified engines built in Russia during Soviet times, and includes a main stage manufactured in the Ukraine.

 Photo credit: NASA

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