The lure of space travel, visiting far away planets, and zipping across the universe a la the Starship Enterprise has always attracted humans. Current technology is nowhere near those feats, but research is moving along in many areas of science aboard the International Space Station. Periodic resupplying of goods and materials is essential. How is this accomplished?
Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus spacecraft, which delivered nearly one-and-a-half tons of supplies and scientific equipment to the International Space Station in January, completed its first commercial cargo mission to the orbiting laboratory Tuesday.
NASA no longer develops and creates all aspects of space launch vehicles, allowing the private sector to develop and compete for space launch business. Orbital is one company partnered with NASA. According to Orbital’s website:
“As the industry leader in small- and medium-class space and rocket systems, Orbital provides a complete set of reliable, cost-effective products. Our satellites include geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) satellites for communications and broadcasting, low Earth orbit (LEO) spacecraft that perform remote sensing and scientific research, spacecraft used for national security missions, and planetary probes to explore deep space. Our launch vehicles include rockets that transport satellites into orbit, interceptor booster vehicles deployed to protect against enemy missile attack, and target rockets used to test missile defense systems. Orbital is also entering an exciting new era of human space flight supplying commercial cargo resupply services for the International Space Station using our new Antares® rocket and Cygnus™ cargo logistics spacecraft. In addition, Orbital provides full service engineering, production and technical services for NASA, DoD, commercial and academic space programs.”
According to a NASA press release, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, with assistance from Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, used the station’s 57-foot Canadarm2 robotic arm to detach Cygnus from the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node at 5:15 a.m. EST. While Wakata monitored data and kept in contact with the team at Houston’s Mission Control Center, Hopkins released Cygnus from the robotic arm at 6:41 a.m.
At the time of release, the station was orbiting about 260 miles over the southern Atlantic Ocean off the southeast coast of Argentina and Uruguay.
From their vantage point inside the station’s cupola observation deck, the two flight engineers monitored telemetry from Cygnus as the unpiloted resupply ship -- now loaded with trash -- conducted a 1-minute, 30-second departure burn to move a safe distance away from the station.
The U.S. commercial cargo craft will begin its deorbit sequence shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday to enable it to slip out of orbit for a destructive entry into Earth's atmosphere. Cygnus will burn up over the Pacific Ocean later that afternoon.
During its first official commercial resupply mission, designated Orbital-1, Cygnus delivered 2,780 pounds of supplies to the space station, including vital science experiments for the Expedition 38 crew. Cygnus launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Jan. 9 aboard an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and arrived at the complex Jan. 12.
Expanding on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Supply/Resupply agreement, Orbital was awarded a NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract to provide cargo delivery services to the International Space Station. Under the contract, Orbital will conduct 8 cargo missions beginning in 2013 to complement Russian, European and Japanese ISS cargo vehicles.
The departure of Cygnus clears the way for the arrival of Space Exploration Technologies’ Dragon cargo ship on its third commercial resupply mission, SpaceX-3. Dragon is set to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 16.
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