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Orbital, SpaceX execute successful space launches

Cygnus lifts off from Wallops Island
Photo by NASA/Getty Images

Two commercial space companies, Orbital Science Corp. and SpaceX, managed to launch payloads that had been delayed numerous times on Sunday and Monday respectively. Orbital launched its Cygnus supply ship on top of an Antares launch vehicle from Wallops Island, Virginia to the International Space Station. SpaceX launched six ORBCOMM Generation 2 satellites from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station into low Earth orbit onboard a Falcon 9.

Orbital launched 3,300 pounds of supplies to the ISS on Sunday. It was the second of eight contracted launches to the orbiting space lab. The Cygnus space craft is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday where it will be grabbed by the ISS’s robotic arm and berthed to an airlock to be unloaded. In August, the Cygnus will be filled with trash and then set loose to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The supplies include a number of pieces of research equipment that will be used by the crew on board the space station.

“Among the research investigations headed to the orbital laboratory are a flock of nanosatellites designed to take images of Earth, developed by Planet Labs of San Francisco; and a satellite-based investigation called TechEdSat-4 built by NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, which aims to develop technology that will eventually enable small samples to be returned to Earth from the space station.

“An experiment managed by Ames called Smart Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) features a sensor and multiple cameras to enable 3-D mapping and robotic navigation inside the space station. In addition, a host of student experiments are on board as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, an initiative of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and NanoRacks.”

Monday’s launch was part of a project to complete ORBCOMM’s satellite messaging service. Currently there are gaps of about 30 minutes to an hour when satellites are not available. ORBCOMM is seeking to build a network of 17 satellites that will provide a seamless, fast communications network, Vendors use the network for communication between retailers and packages or construction operators and their cranes. The satellites, built by Sierra Nevada, are designed to last for ten years. The six satellites join an existing 25 member network at a distance of about 500 miles above the surface of the Earth.

SpaceX is launching the six ORBCOMM satellites at a cut rate price. They were originally contracted to launch on the now defunct Falcon 1. Despite the fact that a Falcon 9 launch would have cost $120 million, SpaceX agreed to retain the original asking price of $47 million.