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Orbital Science’s Cygnus Spacecraft Docks With The ISS

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CygnusThis morning, Orbital Sciences became the second commercial space company to dock a ship to the International Space Station (SpaceX was the first).

On September 18th, Orbital’s Antares rocket launched the spacecraft Cygnus from the Virginia Wallops Flight Facility. Cygnus attempted a first docking on September 22nd, but a software glitch involving the format of the GPS data from the ISS caused the week-long delay — apparently Cygnus’s GPS format was older than the Japanese PROX system in use on the ISS. For the past week, Cygnus has been hanging out about 2.5 miles from the station, waiting for its orbit to realign with that of the ISS, and waiting for a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to arrive at the station. The ISS’s air traffic controllers apparently aren’t used to jockeying multiple spacecraft at once.

During that week, Orbital Sciences developed a software patch, which was then uploaded and tested before Cygnus made another attempt to dock with the station. “It’s more of an embarrassing hiccup rather than any serious showstopper,” says Greg Sadlier, a London Economics space analyst. Thankfully, that turned out to be true. This morning, the ISS’s robotic arm reached out and grabbed the incoming Cygnus, and Cygnus was successfully coupled to the station a couple of hours later.

Luckily, Cygnus was carrying non-essential supplies, meaning that no people or operations were holding their breaths for the delivery. I find this hard to believe, as chocolate was one of the supplies. I’m pretty sure the successful delivery of chocolate is a matter of life and death — perhaps the only one at ISS who wouldn’t agree is Kirobo.

Regardless, better late than never is particularly apt in this situation, as one of the purposes was to demonstrate successful docking capabilities. For the astronauts at the station, now comes the fun part — unloading the supplies, and then reloading the craft with waste and garbage (this really has to be the best part). If you were wondering what the ISS does with all their trash, now you know. It sure beats tossing it out the window.

Cygnus will remain coupled to the ISS for 30 days, and then it’ll bring all that lovely, precious cargo back to earth. The success of the mission fuels Orbital’s hopes to continue developing supply craft that can be hired to make cosmic cargo runs. The feat also means that Orbital is up for a $1.9 billion contract to make such deliveries to the ISS — NASA needs reliable transportation for cargo, and would likely prefer to contract with American companies such as Orbital and SpaceX. Orbital says it’s about 75% done and just needs to finish assembling some hardware before it begins regular flights.

Another Cygnus cargo craft will head to the ISS in time to bring Christmas gifts to the aliens. Orbital plans to send a craft every three to six months with deliveries. Just so long as the cargo involves chocolate, these missions are set for success.

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