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Who Is SpaceX’s Competition?

For almost a year now, California’s SpaceX has seemed a little like the rabbit of the U.S. commercial space race – fast, sleek, glamorous, and running circles around its closest competitor, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia.

Off to a slow start, Orbital got into the race in fine fashion on April 21, launching its Antares rocket from NASA Wallops Island Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where it edges the border with Maryland.

The rocket, which Orbital hopes to use to send its Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station, carried payloads both dummy and smart.

The dummy payload, designed to simulate the weight and size of the unmanned Cygnus delivery vehicle, was successfully launched into a near Earth orbit, and is expected to eventually burn up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

The secondary payload was literally smart times three – Orbital launched three nanosatellites built to test whether the off-the-shelf technology of smartphones can be used as the onboard computer for future spacecraft.

Dubbed PhoneSats, two of the coffee-cup sized, cube-shaped satellites are being powered by battery using the smartphone technology of Nexus One by HTC Corp. and Google’s Android operating system. The third satelllite, using solar power with Nexus S technology by Samsung, is also running on Android.

Guess what their names are? Alexander, Graham and Bell. (If you don’t know who that is, quit reading this and go here.)

With the successful and, by many accounts, near perfect launch of Antares and its payloads, the top executives of Orbital Sciences and its investors can finally breathe a little easier.

A little competition can be a great thing — especially for space exploration. Image: Orbital Sciences Antares rocket launches from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Sunday, April 21, 2013. It delivered the equivalent mass of a spacecraft into Earth’s orbit. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

It was just two years ago that Orbital and SpaceX were neck and neck in the race to be the first U.S. commercial space company to actually operate in space. But SpaceX took the opening sprint last year while Orbital suffered setbacks in the development of its own technology, as well as delays to the renovations of its launching site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island.

And suffer it did. Last fall, Orbital’s stock slid following the announcement that an Antares rocket test firing was delayed.

Now it seems the company’s flight path is quite a bit more optimistic. Not only was the rocket launch a success, two days later Orbital announced that earnings for the first quarter were up by a soaring 50 percent, from a net income of $13 million in the first quarter of 2012, to $19.6 million in the same quarter this year.

One day later, NASA announced that Orbital had won a four-year, $75 million contract to build the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. Equipped with a telescope similar to the Kepler space telescope, TESS will target nearby stars in search of orbiting planets that would then be further explored by higher functioning telescopes, both in space and on Earth.

But even with all the good news for Orbital, there’s still SpaceX rabbiting around it. At the same time Orbital was rejoicing over its earnings news, Elon Musk’s company released a video of its experimental vertical liftoff, vertical landing rocket — the Grasshopper — and mouths were left agape.

So, between the turtle and the hare, it still remains to be seen if slow but steady will win the U.S. commercial space race. But it’s nice to see the competition.

AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues.

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