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The competition heats up: Orbital Sciences expects within a year to get government approval to use its Antares rocket to launch sun-synchronous satellites from its launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.
Currently Antares is used to launch cargo resupply missions to the international space station, whose orbital inclination — the angle at which it passes over the equator — of 51.6 degrees dictates that the rocket follow a southeasterly flight path over the Atlantic Ocean. To reach high-inclination orbits, the vehicle would presumably need to fly more directly toward the equator.
Among the details to be settled is the exact configuration of the Antares rocket Orbital would use to place satellites into sun-synchronous orbits, which are commonly used for Earth observation missions. The Antares rockets flown to date have been two-stage vehicles, but the company offers three-stage versions for missions with more stringent orbital-insertion accuracy or high-energy requirements.
The issue here is making sure the rocket stays clear of population areas during launch. An almost due south launch path, needed for polar orbit from Wallops Island, would pass this test.