WASHINGTON — Orbital Sciences Corp. successfully launched its Cygnus space freighter toward the international space station Jan. 9, setting the company up to complete the first of eight cargo resupply missions it owes NASA under a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract.

The Dulles, Va.-based satellite and rocket builder launched Cygnus aboard the Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a state-owned launch pad the company leases at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in coastal Virginia. Cygnus separated cleanly from Antares about 10 minutes after launch, which took place at 1:07 p.m. Eastern time.

Cygnus, with its 1,260 kilograms of cargo, was scheduled to rendezvous with the international space station Jan. 12. The barrel-shaped spacecraft was to be grappled by the station’s robotic arm and berthed to outpost, more or less as it was back in September during a demonstration cargo run that did not count toward fulfilling Orbital’s eight-flight contract with NASA.

The Jan. 9 launch, originally scheduled for December, was delayed twice because of extreme weather both on Earth and in space. A Jan. 7 launch was pushed to Jan. 8 because of subzero temperatures that swept across the U.S. East Coast, and the Jan. 8 attempt was delayed because of higher-than-acceptable solar radiation levels from an X-class solar flare. Orbital engineers feared the extreme space weather would have played havoc with the avionics systems on the Antares rocket — something Orbital Chief Technical Officer Antonio Elias said Jan. 8 would have led to a loss of the mission.

Both of the companies NASA contracted with to resupply the station with cargo back in 2008 — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., is the other — are now making routine deliveries to the orbital outpost, marking a victory for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which subsidized development of both SpaceX’s and Orbital’s privately operated rockets and cargo transports. 

The next cargo mission to station is slated for Feb. 5, when a Russian Progress freighter will make a delivery to the outpost’s Russian segment. SpaceX is set to launch its third contracted cargo run Feb. 22. The company owes NASA a total of 12 flights under its $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract.

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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...