Cygnus space freighter embarks on maiden voyage

Cygnus space freighter embarks on maiden voyage

The new Cygnus commercial cargo ship has launched on a demonstration voyage to the International Space Station. Built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, the robotic vessel lifted off atop an Antares rocket from the Wallops spaceport in Virginia.

Cygnus is one of two private systems seeded by NASA to meet America’s ISS resupply requirements following the retirement of the space shuttles. A successful mission will see OSC begin a series of operational cargo flights. NASA has awarded the company a $1.9-billion contract covering eight sorties to the station.

The two-stage Antares appeared to work flawlessly. Its aim was to put the freighter in an orbit more than 240 kilometres above Earth.

Cygnus will have to use its own thrusters over the course of the next four days to raise its altitude and chase down the space station. Because this is a demonstration mission, NASA has insisted on a number of practice manoeuvres to ensure the ship poses no danger when it approaches the space station. Cygnus would’ve parked itself just under the orbiting lab on Sunday. The astronauts onboard the platform will then reach out with a robotic arm and grab the freighter, berthing it to a free port.

The job of unloading the roughly 1,500 pounds of food and equipment would’ve begun on Monday. The expectation is that Cygnus will stay at the ISS for about a month. Before departure, the ship will be filled with station waste.

It will take this rubbish into a destructive dive in the atmosphere over the Southern Pacific Ocean. NASA is attempting to hand over routine human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit to commercial industry, in a way similar to how some large organisations contract out their IT or payroll.

The carriage of freight is the first service to be bought in from external suppliers; the transport of astronauts to and from the station will be the second, later this decade. The US space agency hopes these changes will save it money that can then be invested in exploration missions far beyond Earth, at destinations such as asteroids and Mars.

To this end, it offered Orbital a series of incentive payments to help it develop a cargo-delivery system, with the carrot of a bumper operational contract once it was working. So far, OSC has met 28 of 29 milestones in the development of Cygnus and Antares.

More importantly, it would also then green-light the first fully commercial run to the space station in December.

NASA has also seeded California’s SpaceX company in the development of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. This system is already in operation, with two missions completed in a 12-flight, $1.6-billion contract.

Having a choice of companies is important to NASA. Alan Lindenmoyer, who manages the agency’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Programme, said: “You never want to be put in a situation where, if there’s a problem with one of the suppliers, you don’t have the ability to continue with your resupply chain to the space station.”

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