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Orbital considers launching ISS cargo from Brevard

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Cargo previously launched to the International Space Station from Virginia could fly from Florida until Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket is ready to fly again.

Orbital said Wednesday that it is considering two U.S. companies and one from Europe as potential launchers of one or two Cygnus cargo spacecraft in 2015 and early 2016, Local 6 News partner Florida Today reported.

Orbital CEO David Thompson did not identify the three companies in a call with investors.

However, the two U.S. providers presumably are SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, either of which would fly from Cape Canaveral, along with Europe's Arianespace, which launches from French Guiana.

The one or two launches on competitors' rockets would enable Dulles, Va.-based Orbital to fulfill its $1.9 billion NASA contract to deliver station cargo despite the Oct. 28 explosion of its unmanned Antares rocket 15 seconds after liftoff from Wallops Island, Va.

The contingency plan adds no cost to NASA and won't significantly impact Orbital's financial outlook, Thompson said.

Thompson confirmed a failed turbopump in one of the Antares' two AJ26 engines was likely to blame for the recent accident.

As a result, Orbital expects to discontinue use of that engine – built in the 70s for a Soviet moon program and refurbished in the U.S. by Aerojet Rocketdyne – and speed up its replacement from 2017 to 2016.

Thompson would not disclose which engine Orbital has chosen to replace the AJ26, but speculation is that it will be a liquid-fueled Russian engine.

Along with the engine upgrade, Orbital and the state of Virginia will repair the Wallops Island pad so launches of the upgraded Antares can resume from there in 2016.

Orbital's new plan reduces from five to four the number of launches remaining on its NASA contract.

The company will be one of multiple competitors for new cargo contracts for deliveries after 2016.

SpaceX is NASA's other current commercial cargo provider with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, launched from Florida.

NASA has selected SpaceX and ULA to fly crews from the Space Coast as soon as 2017.