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Commercial space took another major leap forward this morning, Oct 22., when the privately developed Cygnus cargo vehicle undocked from the International Space Station on its historic maiden flight and successfully completed a highly productive month long stay during its demonstration mission – mostly amidst the US government shutdown.
The Cygnus was maneuvered about 10 meters (30 feet) away from the station and held in the steady grip of the stations fully extended robotic arm when astronauts Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano unlatched the arm and released the ship into free space at 7:31 a.m. EDT today – signifying an end to joint flight operations.
The next Cygnus resupply vessel is due to blast off in mid-December and is already loaded with new science experiments for microgravity research and assorted gear and provisions.
After the Expedition 37 crew members quickly pulled the arm back to a distance 1.5 meters away from Cygnus, ground controllers issued a planned “abort” command to fire the ships thrusters and safely depart from the massive orbiting lab complex.
“It’s been a great mission. Nice work today!” radioed Houston Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
The vehicles were flying over the Atlantic Ocean and off the east coast of Argentina as Cygnus left the station some 250 miles (400 km) overhead in low Earth orbit.
The event was carried live on NASA TV and Cygnus was seen moving rapidly away.
Barely five minutes later Cygnus was already 200 meters away, appeared very small in the cameras view and exited the imaginary “Keep Out Sphere” – a strictly designated safety zone around the million pound station.
The Cygnus resupply ship delivered about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food, clothing, water, science experiments, spare parts and gear to the six person Expedition 37 crew.
After the crew unloaded all that cargo, they packed the ship with 2,850 pounds of no longer needed trash.
On Wednesday (Oct. 23), a pair of deorbit burns with target Cygnus for a destructive reentry back into the Earth’s atmosphere at 2:18 p.m. EDT, to plummet harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.
Cygnus was developed by Orbital Sciences Corp. with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership between NASA and Orbital Sciences under NASA’s COTS commercial transportation initiative.
SpaceX Corp. was also awarded a COTS contract to develop the Dragon cargo carrier so that NASA would have a dual capability to stock up the station.
COTS was aimed at fostering the development of America’s commercial space industry to deliver critical and essential supplies to the ISS following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program.
“Congratulations to the teams at Orbital Sciences and NASA who worked hard to make this demonstration mission to the International Space Station an overwhelming success,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
“We are delighted to now have two American companies able to resupply the station. U.S. innovation and inspiration have once again shown their great strength in the design and operation of a new generation of vehicles to carry cargo to our laboratory in space. Orbital’s success today is helping make NASA’s future exploration to farther destinations possible.”
America completely lost its capability to send humans and cargo to the ISS when NASA’s space shuttles were forcibly retired in 2011. Orbital Sciences and SpaceX were awarded NASA contracts worth over $3 Billion to restore the unmanned cargo resupply capability over 20 flights totally.
The initially planned Sept. 22 berthing of the spacecraft at a port on the Earth facing Harmony node was delayed a week to Sept. 29 due to an easily fixed communications glitch. It was no worse for the wear and performed admirably.
“Antares next flight is scheduled for mid December,” according to Frank Culbertson, former astronaut and now Orbital’s executive Vice President responsible for the Antares and Cygnus programs.