A new, private option for sending cargo to the International Space Station blasted off Wednesday morning.
At 10:58 AM local time, an Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Virginia, ignited its engines and took off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in coastal Virginia. It lofted an unmanned craft, called Cygnus, into orbit. Like the swan that is its namesake, Cygnus then unfolded its wings of solar panels in preparation for docking with the space station on 22 September.
Cygnus is carrying about 600 kilograms of food, clothing and other materials for the six astronauts who live in orbit. It is essentially a smaller version of the cargo containers that NASA used to send to the station via the space shuttle, before the shuttle programme ended in 2011.
Cygnus is also the culmination of NASA’s effort to shift those transportation tasks to commercial companies. The agency pitted Orbital against another company — SpaceX of Hawthorne, California — to develop low-cost space ferries and taxis. SpaceX has already sent its unmanned cargo capsule to the space station twice, with a third trip planned for later this year. Cygnus was supposed to have flown back in December 2010, according to the original agreement, but various problems delayed it until now.
Orbital built Cygnus to maximize the stuff it could pack into 18.9 cubic metres. If docking goes as planned on Sunday, astronauts will unload Cygnus over the course of about a month. Orbital will then undock the capsule and send it into the atmosphere to burn up. (In contrast, SpaceX’s cargo capsule lands on Earth, so it can be used to ferry materials in both directions.)
There are many other options for transporting cargo to the space station, such as Russia’s Progress and Soyuz craft, as well as unmanned European and Japanese transfer vehicles. But if Cygnus works, it will widen the possibilities for how often and how cheaply to get stuff to the station. Among other things, it might be used to transport US research experiments to space. “We feel like this will fill a need in the country for scientific payloads,” says Orbital’s Frank Culbertson.
Cygnus got its start seeded with hundreds of millions of dollars from NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services programme. If successful, Orbital will begin flying 20,000 more kilograms of cargo to the station, for $1.9 billion, over eight missions during the next three years.