NASA doubles commercial fleet after successful Cygnus docking

Orbital Sciences spacecraft ferries 1,300 pounds of cargo to space station; now a NASA approved International Space Station supplier

The second commercial venture to ink a deal with NASA to run resupply missions to International Space Station successfully docked at the orbiting facility on Sunday.

Astronauts on the space station used a robotic arm to grab hold of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft, built and operated by Orbital Sciences, as it approached the station. Cygnus, carrying 1,300 pounds of food, clothing and experiments, docked at the station at 8:44 a.m. EDT on Sunday after an 11-day journey.

The hatch on the spacecraft is set to be opened on Monday, and the unloading will begin.

"With the successful berthing of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo module to the [space station], we have expanded America's capability for reliably transporting cargo to low-Earth orbit," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement. "It is an historic milestone as this second commercial partner's demonstration mission reaches the [station], and I congratulate Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them to make it happen."

Orbital Sciences joins SpaceX as private companies working with NASA to send cargo to the space station and bring finished experiments and refuse back to Earth. At some point, these commercial crafts are expected to become space taxis, ferrying astronauts back and forth to the station.

SpaceX, the first commercial venture to send a spacecraft to the space station, launched a test flight in 2012 and has been approved to run regular resupply missions.

With Sunday's successful docking, Orbital Sciences now has the same deal.

Now that the long-running space shuttle fleet is retired, NASA is dependent on a young commercial space industry to fly missions to the space station.

At this point, NASA astronauts are flying to the space station on Russian Soyuz rockets. The space agency expects that commercial flights, once they gain more experience and accuracy, will take over that job for NASA.

With commercial companies focusing on near-Earth missions, NASA is working on robotics and heavy-lift engines that should get human explorers to the moon, Mars and asteroids.

"Orbital joins SpaceX in fulfilling the promise of American innovation to maintain America's leadership in space," said Bolden. "As commercial partners demonstrate their new systems for reaching the station, we at NASA continue to focus on the technologies to reach an asteroid and Mars.

"Under President Obama's leadership, the nation is embarking upon an ambitious exploration program that will take us farther into space than we have ever traveled before, while helping create good-paying jobs right here in the United States and inspiring the next generation," he added.

Orbital Sciences's Cygnus was launched on the company's Antares rocket on Sept. 18 from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The capsule originally had been set to rendezvous with the space station, which flies about 260 miles above Earth, on Sunday, Sept. 22 - a full week before it did dock with the station.

That planned rendezvous was postponed, however, after engineers discovered a data format mismatch between an onboard space station navigation system and a similar system on Cygnus. The Orbital Sciences team quickly developed and uploaded a software fix.

Once the glitch was repaired, Cygnus' rendezvous with the station was pushed to Sunday so it wouldn't interfere with arrival of three new space station crew members last Wednesday.

Cygnus is scheduled to remain attached to Harmony until Oct. 22. After that, the capsule, carrying refuse from the station, will burn up on re-entry in Earth's atmosphere.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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