Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Orbital Science Cygnus: Supply ship departs space station after five weeks

Orbital Science's Cygnus Supply ship ended its five-week visit Tuesday morning. 

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins used Canadarm, the space station's robot arm, to release the capsule, as the orbiting lab sailed 260 miles (418 kilometers) above the South Atlantic.

Cygnus is filled with garbage and will burn up Wednesday when it plunges through the atmosphere, over the Pacific.

After a number of delays, Orbital Sciences Corp. launched the capsule last month from Virginia under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA.

The Cygnus successfully delivered 3,000 pounds (1,360 kilograms) of goods, including belated Christmas gifts for the six-man crew and hundreds of ants for a student experiment.

The ants are still aboard the space station. They'll return to Earth aboard another company's cargo ship, the SpaceX Dragon.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., (SpaceX) based in Southern California—will launch its next Dragon from Cape Canaveral on March 16 with a fresh load of supplies.

NASA is paying Orbital Sciences and SpaceX to keep the space station stocked. Russia, Japan and Europe also take turns making deliveries.

The SpaceX Dragon is the only craft capable of safely returning a pile of items, now that NASA's space shuttles are retired.

The resolute Russian Soyuz crew capsule is not built for staorage. It has just enough room for three astronauts and a few odds and ends.

A handful of American companies, including SpaceX, are working to develop craft to carry space station crews. Until that happens, NASA must continue to buy seats for its astronauts on the elderly but reliable, Soyuz Progress.

Americans have not launched from U.S. soil since the last shuttle flight in 2011. NASA expects it will be 2017 before U.S. astronauts rocket into orbit from their homeland.

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