Orbital Sciences has successfully launched the first Cygnus cargo capsule into low Earth orbit (LEO). Initial data indicates that the spacecraft has successfully reached orbit, where it will undergo a series of tests before docking with the International Space Station (ISS).
The launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, is the first launch of the Cygnus capsule, and the second for its Antares launch vehicle.
Cygnus will spend four days in space before docking with the ISS, conducting 10 equipment demonstrations to assure NASA of the spacecraft’s safety. The capsule could stay on orbit for a month or more awaiting a docking opportunity if necessary, running its systems on battery and keeping station with thrusters. After docking and unloading, the vehicle will be sent to burn up during atmospheric re-entry.
The launch brings an official end to the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) programme to develop a US-built cargo transport to the International Space Station. The next flights will take place under the Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) contract, essentially a commercial contract to deliver cargo. Orbital Sciences won eight flights under CRS, and competitor SpaceX won 12 for its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket.
An ‘enhanced’ Cygnus, capable of carrying a larger load, will begin flying on the fourth CRS mission.
The first Cygnus capsule contains 680kg (1,500lb) of supplies.
“Today’s launch is the culmination of more than five years’ work between the NASA and Orbital teams,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA’s program manager for commercial crew and cargo. “Everyone involved should be extremely proud, and we are looking forward to a successful series of checkouts between now and when Cygnus reaches the space station this weekend.”