WASHINGTON — Orbital Sciences Corp. wrapped up all but the disposal portion of a 23-day cargo delivery-and-disposal mission to the international space station Oct. 22 when its Cygnus space capsule was unberthed from the outpost and set course for a destructive re-entry expected to take place Oct. 23, NASA and the company said in press releases. 

After Cygnus re-enters the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean and burns up with its load of space trash, NASA will begin a formal review of the mission — the last of two flight demos Orbital had to complete before it can begin routine cargo service under an eight-flight, $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract it got from NASA in 2008.

Orbital Sciences already has received some advance payments on this contract but cannot claim additional fees until after it completes each of the eight missions it is slated to carry out through 2016.

Cygnus launched aboard Orbital’s Antares rocket Sept. 18 from the state-run Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. The expendable cargo ship arrived at the station Sept. 29, a few days later than expected after a communications glitch and the arrival of new crew members aboard a Russian-launched Soyuz spacecraft forced Cygnus into a holding pattern. 

Within days of the first Cygnus’ re-entry, the service module for the next Cygnus could be on its way from Orbital’s Dulles, Va., headquarters to the company’s horizontal integration facility at Wallops, company spokesman Barron Beneski said. There, it will be mated with its Italian-built pressurized cargo module in preparation for a mission that could launch as soon as mid-December.

“The first-stage core for this December Antares is at Wallops, the upper-stage rocket motor is there, the fairing is there, the two AJ-26 engines for the core are there,” Beneski said. “We have all necessary major components of the Antares rocket onsite. The expectation is on our part that if we’re ready to go in December and NASA is ready to receive us, we will go in December.”

Meanwhile, whatever effect the recently ended government shutdown will have on other aspects of Orbital’s business, the company’s space station logistics work appears to have been disturbed only minimally, if at all, Beneski said. 

Neither Orbital nor the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority got locked out of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport as a result of the shutdown, meaning that preparations for the tentative December launch continued while more than 95 percent of NASA’s roughly 18,000 civil servants were on furlough. Space station operations were unaffected by the shutdown.

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...