Orbital’s Cygnus Concludes First ISS Cargo Run

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WASHINGTON — Orbital Sciences Corp. wrapped up its 35-day cargo delivery and disposal mission to the international space station (ISS) Oct. 23 when its Cygnus space capsule, which was unberthed from the outpost the day before, burned up as planned after re-entering the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

“We have lost the signal from Cygnus,” Orbital wrote in a Twitter message at 2:22 p.m EDT Oct. 23. “Reentry accomplished.” 

Cygnus broke up over an uninhabited stretch of ocean east of New Zealand, according to Orbital. 

Now that the expendable spacecraft has completed its cargo delivery and disposal duties, 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 NASA awarded in 2008. A smaller award went that same year to Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which has flown two of the 12 cargo resupply missions called for under its $1.6 billion contract.  

Orbital Sciences already has received some advance payments on its 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 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.

The day of the first Cygnus’ destructive re-entry, the service module for the next Cygnus was shipped from Orbital’s Dulles, Va., headquarters to the company’s horizontal integration facility at Wallops, the company said in another Twitter message. 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,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski told SpaceNews. “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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