Astronauts unload supplies for space station after Cygnus docking

Robotic arm grabs spacecraft as commercial mission reaches International Space Station

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station Sunday, marking its first resupply mission to the orbiting laboratory.

With the doors to the cargo spacecraft open, weeks of unloading have already begun, according to NASA. Cygnus carried nearly 3,000 pounds of food, spare parts and scientific experiments to the space station.

After three postponements, Cygnus, onboard an Antares rocket, lifted off last Thursday from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Early Sunday morning, the spacecraft closely approached the space station and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, using one of the station's robotic arms, Canadarm2, grabbed the cargo craft at 6:08 a.m. ET. At 8:05 a.m., it was berthed to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node.

Then at 12:17 p.m., astronauts opened the hatch to the Cygnus cargo craft and began what is expected to be five weeks of cargo transfer work.

Since this was a commercial resupply mission, the company behind Cygnus, Orbital Sciences, guided the cargo craft on its journey to the space station. However, once Cygnus was in range of the orbiter, U.S. and Japanese mission controllers began working with Orbital Sciences to move the craft into position so it could be grappled by the robotic arm.

NASA noted that Cygnus is scheduled to be unberthed and released from the station on Feb. 18.

This is Orbital Sciences' first official resupply mission after inking a deal last fall with NASA to ferry supplies to the station.

To prove itself, Orbital Sciences conducted a demonstration mission last September, sending its first Cygnus commercial resupply craft to the station. That craft delivered 1,300 pounds of non-critical gear, then was reloaded with trash and sent back to Earth for a fiery destruction on reentry in the atmosphere.

Orbital Sciences is only the second company to receive approval to send commercial missions to the space station. SpaceX was the first.

Orbital Sciences' Cygnus spacecraft
Orbital Sciences' Cygnus spacecraft is shown here on its final approach before docking with the International Space Station on Sunday. (Image: NASA)

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

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