A software problem forced Orbital Sciences Corp. to delay Sunday’s planned rendezvous of its unmanned cargo capsule with the international space station for at least two days.
The issue cropped up early in the morning as controllers in Virginia were set to monitor the delicate maneuvers that would have taken Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft through the last several hundred yards of its slow approach to the orbiting laboratory, in order for astronauts onboard to use a mechanical arm to grab and secure it.
The Dulles, Va., company is seeking to become the second commercial entity to transport cargo to the space station, following closely held Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Orbital engineers are developing a fix, but the positions of the spacecraft and the space station in low-earth orbit require a “minimum turnaround time” of about 48 hours “to resume the approach.”
The trouble came after what had appeared to be a seemingly flawless, four-day maiden flight of the Cygnus spacecraft, which blasted off from Wallops Island, Va., Wednesday morning. The capsule’s thrusters worked as planned to position Cygnus for the final series of automated moves.
The mission is a challenge for Orbital, which has invested more than five years and about $500 million of its own funds to develop a commercial-cargo capability. But it also presents a dramatic test of NASA’s plans to outsource to industry all U.S. resupply missions to the space station. The agency has paid Orbital about $285 million to spur development of the Cygnus and Antares rocket system.
Last year, closely held SpaceX, as the Southern California company is called, made space history and attracted global attention by becoming the first commercial entity to transport cargo to the station. It has since conducted two other successful cargo missions, though a third flight was delayed from this month until early 2014 for technical reasons.
Orbital got off to a slower start than its smaller rival in developing a new rocket and capsule for the task, and then had to overcome various technical challenges and persistent launchpad construction delays. But if the current demonstration mission goes well, it could begin regular supply trips to the station as early as December under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA.
The computer mishap came two days after NASA released a report laying out the benefits of scientific exploration aboard the $100-billion laboratory that orbits roughly 250 miles above the Earth. Prepared by the international consortium that runs the space station, it says future experiments are expected to provide advances in power generation, energy storage, recycling, advanced robotics, medicine and computer software.
The document released Friday also notes that earlier experiments helped pave the way for implantable heart monitors, certain anticancer therapies, cellphone cameras and lightweight, heat-resistant alloys. On a political level, the report emphasizes that space exploration “is a catalyst for mutual understanding and trust” among nations.
Having two reliable commercial-cargo transporters eventually is expected to reduce launch costs and enhance scientific endeavors aboard the station by assuring more capacity to deliver experimental supplies.
Still, Russian officials have publicly suggested that the station, parts of which date back to the late 1990s, may be too creaky and expensive to maintain past the end of this decade. U.S. space officials have said they are tentatively planning to keep the station functioning through 2028.