Orbital's Antares rocket, with a Cygnus cargo spacecraft onboard, is scheduled to launch at 10:50 a.m. EDT Wednesday from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Cygnus, an unpiloted resupply ship, is capable of carrying more than 3,700 pounds of cargo. On this particular demonstration flight, it will be delivering 1,300 pounds of supplies, including food, clothing, and office supplies, to the ISS crew.
Part of Cygnus's mission is to demonstrate cargo delivery using its advanced maneuvering capabilities. The spacecraft's service module incorporates avionics systems from Orbital's LEOStar and GEOStar satellite product lines, and propulsion and power systems from its GEOStar communications satellites. The pressurized cargo module was developed by Thales Alenia Space for NASA. Cygnus was designed to provide cost-effective, medium-class launch services, according to Orbital officials.
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Cygnus is expected to reach the space station on Sunday, Sept. 22. Astronauts aboard the ISS will use a robotic crane to deliver the Cygnus capsule from orbit and attach it to a docking port, where the cargo will be collected. If the demonstration mission proves successful, Orbital will send eight planned cargo resupply flights to the orbiting laboratory through NASA's $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract.
The resupply mission not only will demonstrate the technical capabilities of Orbital's spacecraft, but also "a new way of private-public partnerships," Alan Lindenmoyer, program manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, said during a press conference on Tuesday. "By turning over [resupply services] to Orbital, NASA can focus on the more challenging human missions," Lindenmoyer said.
In recent years, NASA has placed major emphasis on its commercial program, established by the Obama Administration to help the U.S. develop spacecraft that can transport astronauts as well as supplies to the ISS and other low-Earth-orbit destinations. Although NASA has a $424 million agreement with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to use its crew transportation services through 2017, its goal is to eventually send astronauts to space from U.S. soil. Orbital Sciences joins Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, which recently launched its second flight delivering materials to the ISS. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Dragon cargo capsule, blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 1. It was the second of 12 missions for SpaceX, also contracted by NASA under the COTS program. That mission carried more than 1,260 pounds of supplies for experiments being conducted at the space lab.