Orbital’s Cygnus Marks Milestone for Private Enterprise Into Space
The new Cygnus commercial cargo ship launched on a
demonstration voyage to the International Space Station today.
Built by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC), the robotic vessel lifted off atop an Antares rocket from the Wallops spaceport in Virginia at 10:58 local time.
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 and NASA has awarded the company a $1.9 billion contract covering eight sorties to the station.
The two-stage Antares appeared to work flawlessly towards its mission of putting the freighter in an orbit more than 150 miles 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 maneuvers to ensure the ship doesn’t pose a danger as it approaches the ISS.
Assuming all goes as planned, 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 1,500 pounds of food, clothes, water, chocolate, 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 the space station’s waste and take it 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. The carriage of freight is the first service to be bought in from external suppliers; transporting astronauts to and from the station will be the second task to be accomplished later this decade.
NASA 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. To this end, it offered Orbital a series of incentive payments to help it develop a cargo-delivery system and a bonus incentive of an operational contract once it was working.
So far, OSC has met 28 of 29 milestones in the development of Cygnus and Antares, earning $285 million in the process.
Satisfactory completion of the demonstration mission will tick a 29th milestone, releasing a final $2.5 million payment. But, more importantly, it would also then green-light the first fully commercial run to the space station in December.
Although the $288 million total is a sizeable sum, it did not match what the company itself had put up, said OSC vice president Frank Culbertson.
“The Orbital investment far exceeds the NASA investment, so we’re hoping for a long series of cargo re-supply missions to help recoup that,” he told reporters in a pre-launch briefing.
NASA has also seeded California’s SpaceX Company in the development of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. This system is already in operation, with two missions completed in a 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract.
Having a choice of companies is important to NASA.
“We intentionally designed our program to have at least two companies, certainly in the development and demonstration phase. And then we were fortunate enough to award contracts to both SpaceX and Orbital,” Alan Lindenmoyer, the agency’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Manager, said.
“You never want to be put in a situation where, if there’s a problem with one of the suppliers, you don’t have the ability to continue with your re-supply chain to the space station.”
(Via NASA, Yahoo News Science and Environment, YouTube/Sparmi Germany)