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Antares rocket launches cargo ship after 2-year gap

Antares launch
Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket lifts off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (Credit: NASA TV)

Orbital ATK’s Antares two-stage rocket sent a robotic Cygnus cargo spaceship on its way to the International Space Station today, nearly two years after a launch pad failure forced an engine overhaul.

The Antares rocket blasted off from NASA’s Wallops Fllight Facility in Virginia right on time, at 7:45 p.m. ET (4:45 p.m. PT). NASA said the launch could have been seen by skywatchers across a wide swath of the East Coast, weather permitting.

Ten minutes after launch, the cylindrical Cygnus craft separated from the second stage, heading for the station with 5,100 pounds of supplies. After a series of checkouts, the Cygnus will approach the station for a rendezvous on Oct. 23.

This was the first Antares launch since October 2014, when the rocket and its payload blew up just seconds after liftoff. The failure was traced to a turbopump failure in one of the Antares’ refurbished 40-year-old Russian engines. In order to return to flight, Orbital ATK had to replace Antares’ engines with upgraded RD-181 engines from Russia. Wallops’ Pad-0A also had to be repaired.

In the meantime, Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus ships on space station resupply missions from Florida late last year and early this year, using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rockets.

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Cygnus cargo ship hooks up to space station

Image: Cygnus capture
The International Space Station’s robotic arm reaches out to grapple Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo ship in a video view with an overlay of computer data. (Credit: NASA TV)

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus commercial cargo ship had a smooth link-up with the International Space Station on March 26, delivering about 7,500 pounds of supplies, equipment, experiments and high-tech gizmos. But a rocket glitch that cropped up while putting the Cygnus into orbit has led United Launch Alliance to postpone the next scheduled liftoff of its Atlas 5 rocket.

The good news is that the Atlas 5’s anomalous rocket engine performance on March 22 had no impact on Cygnus’ sendoff. The uncrewed capsule made its rendezvous right on time, and astronauts used the station’s robotic arm to bring it in for its berthing.

Over the next two months, crew members will unload Cygnus’ cargo – including a 3-D printer, a meteor-watching experiment and tons of more mundane items. Then they’ll fill it back up with trash and send it loose to burn up during atmospheric re-entry. During the descent, mission managers will use an experimental apparatus to set a fire inside the capsule and study how the flames spread.

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Cygnus heads for space station with cool gizmos

Image: Atlas launch with Cygnus
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifts off, sending Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo capsule into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Credit: NASA)

Orbital ATK’s commercial Cygnus cargo capsule was lofted into orbit tonight atop an Atlas 5 rocket, carrying an upgraded 3-D printer, a gecko-type gripper, a fire-starting experiment and tons of other supplies to the International Space Station.

The launch vehicle made an on-time departure from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 p.m. ET (8:05 p.m. PT). If all goes according to plan, astronauts will grapple the uncrewed Cygnus spacecraft with the station’s robotic arm and pull it in to its berthing port on the Unity node on Saturday.

This will be Orbital ATK’s fourth delivery to the station under the terms of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA, and the second to make use of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. Orbital ATK had to turn to the Atlas when its own Antares rocket blew up shortly after launch in October 2014, destroying a Cygnus shipment. A redesigned Antares is expected to make its debut later this spring.

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Cygnus delivers goodies to space station

Image: Cygnus spaceship
A photo tweeted by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly shows the International Space Station’s robotic arm about to grab onto a commercial Cygnus cargo ship. (Credit: Scott Kelly / NASA)

The International Space Station’s astronauts got their Christmas presents early today, in the form of HoloLens augmented-reality headsets from Microsoft and more than 7,000 pounds of other nice stuff, courtesy of a Cygnus commercial cargo ship.

Orbital ATK’s uncrewed Cygnus arrived at the station three days after Sunday’s launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Florida. NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren used the station’s robotic arm to grab onto the 20-foot-long (5.1-meter-long) capsule at 3:19 a.m. PT and bring it in for its berthing.

In a tweet, space station commander Scott Kelly joked that the delivery arrived “just in time for Christmas.”

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