Orbital’s 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 (OSC), the robotic vessel lifted off atop an Antares rocket from the Wallops spaceport in Virginia, US.

Cygnus is one of two private systems seeded by Nasa to meet America’s ISS re-supply 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 $1.9bn (£1.2bn) contract covering eight sorties to the station.

Lift-off occurred at 10:58 local time (14:58 GMT).

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

Assuming all goes well, Cygnus will park 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 700kg (1,500lb) of food and equipment will begin 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.

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