Orbital Sciences this morning successfully launched its Antares rocket carrying the company's Cygnus cargo spacecraft on a demonstration mission to resupply the International Space Station.
The launch represents the second major private unmanned space system - but the first launched from NASA's Wallops Island, Va. facility -- to successfully blast into space. The company joins Space Exploration Technologies (Space X) with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft which launched the first successful private mission in May 2012. Unlike the reusable Dragon however, Cygnus will not make a trip back to Earth, it will be discharged from the ISS and sent to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.
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According to NASA, traveling 17,500 mph in Earth's orbit, Cygnus successfully deployed its solar arrays and is on its way to rendezvous with the space station Sunday, Sept. 22. The spacecraft is set to deliver about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food and clothing, to the Expedition 37 crew, who will grapple and attach the capsule using the ISS' robotic arm.
But first it will have to prove itself so over the next few days Cygnus will perform a series of maneuvers to test its systems, ensuring it can safely enter the so-called "keep-out sphere" of the space station, a 656-foot (200-meter) radius surrounding the station.
This demonstration flight is the final milestone in Orbital's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) joint research and development initiative with NASA. Under the COTS program, which began in 2008, NASA and Orbital developed Cygnus, which meets the stringent human-rated safety requirements for ISS operations. Orbital also privately developed the Antares launch vehicle to provide low-cost, reliable access to space for medium-class payloads, Orbital stated.
Pending the successful completion of the COTS program, Orbital will begin regularly scheduled cargo delivery missions to the ISS under its $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Under the CRS contract, Orbital will deliver approximately 20,000 kilograms of net cargo to the ISS over eight missions through 2016. For these missions, NASA will manifest a variety of essential items based on ISS program needs, including food, clothing, crew supplies, spare parts and equipment, and scientific experiments.
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