Nasa cargo ship Cygnus makes delivery to International Space Station

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 3:13am

Nasa's newest delivery service has made its first shipment to the International Space Station, another triumph for the booming commercial space arena that has its sights set on launching astronauts.

Orbital Sciences' unmanned cargo ship, the Cygnus, pulled up at the orbiting lab on Sunday with a half-tonne of meals and treats for the station astronauts who assisted in the high-flying feat.

With the smooth link-up, the company, based in the US state of Virginia, became only the second to accomplish such a far-flung shipment. The California-based SpaceX took the lead last year.

Nasa officials along with White House representatives declared it a historic day.

"It was just a very, very impressive job ... I just couldn't be happier and more proud," said the Nasa manager overseeing this commercial effort, Alan Lindenmoyer.

Now that the space station had two US companies capable of delivering goods, he noted, "it's certainly relief and something we're ready to celebrate".

All this was a week late in coming. The Cygnus - named after the swan constellation - should have arrived on September 22, four days after its launch. But a discrepancy in navigation data between the capsule and the space station led to a frustrating stand-off. A simple software repair was carried out by ground controllers. Then the Cygnus had to wait for a Russian spacecraft to bring three new astronauts.

The wait involved "some hair-pulling and heartache", Orbital Sciences executive vice-president Frank Culbertson said. But in the end, the company's patience was rewarded with a perfect rendezvous.

Applause could be heard in mission control once Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano grabbed hold of Cygnus with the space station's mechanical arm. The union occurred 420 kilometres above the Indian Ocean.

The successful arrival means Orbital Sciences can start making good on a US$1.9 billion contract with Nasa for more deliveries, each one carrying more cargo. The next could fly by Christmas.

  • Russia yesterday successfully launched a Proton-M rocket with a European communication satellite on board, marking a return of its most important unmanned space vehicle three months after one exploded on take-off.

The launch from the Baikonur space centre that Russia leases from neighbouring Kazakhstan had originally been scheduled for July 21. But one of the rockets exploded on take-off on July 2, spewing toxic fumes into the atmosphere and dealing another blow to Russia's once-proud space programme.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse