Spacecraft Docks With ISS4 min read

Orbital Sciences Corp. on Sunday became the second commercial entity to send a spacecraft to the international space station, as its unmanned cargo vehicle executed a series of slow-motion maneuvers and linked up with the orbiting laboratory.

One week after a computer-software problem delayed the rendezvous 250 miles above the earth, the company’s Cygnus capsule floated within less than 40 feet of its destination where it was grabbed by a robotic arm operated by two astronauts aboard the space station.

Once the craft is firmly attached to the station, it will unload about 1,300 pounds of supplies and stay for several weeks before separating. Loaded with trash and discarded equipment, it is designed to plunge back into the atmosphere and burn up during the descent.

Sunday’s success vaults Dulles, Va.,-based Orbital into the top tier of companies pursuing commercial transportation in space, behind closely-held Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California. The Southern California firm made history last year by becoming the first nongovernmental spacecraft operator to successfully transport cargo into orbit.

Orbital has invested about $500 million and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration an additional $285 million to get to Sunday’s activities demonstrating the 17-feet-long Cygnus capsule’s ability to communicate, maneuver and safely link up with the station. Some of the money went to develop the company’s two-stage Antares rocket. Orbital stands to receive $2.5 million more for completing the current mission.

Approaching to about 700 feet of the station while circling the Earth at more than 17,000 miles an hour, the capsule was commanded to retreat temporarily in order to verify that flight-control and distance-measuring devices were operating properly. At 7:00 Eastern Daylight Time, as the station and Cygnus passed over the Indian Ocean, the robotic arm grappled Cygnus and started the slow process of pulling it in over the last dozen or so yards.

European Space Agency astronaut Luca Permitano snared the capsule, amid cheers and clapping at twin mission control centers in Texas and Virginia.

Now that both companies have demonstrated their prowess in carrying cargo into orbit, they confront the same challenge: building enough spacecraft and launching them at a rapid enough clip to fulfill existing contracts and subsequent options with NASA. Even before Sunday’s success, NASA committed to spend more than $1.9 billion on Orbital cargo missions over several years.

Under President Barack Obama, the agency previously changed course to rely on private industry to design, build and operate cargo transportation systems to reach low-earth orbit. NASA also has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in seed money for at least two different fleets of planned private space taxis intended to shuttle U.S. astronauts to the space station and back. Such expenditures are an integral part of NASA’s strategy to husband its resources for more-ambitious missions to explore deeper space.

Orbital, which is about two years behind its original schedule with NASA, is looking to make up time by blasting Cygnus into orbit again from the same launch complex off the Virginia coast before end of the year. That would be an unusually fast turnaround. After that, Orbital is scheduled to complete two more supply trips by the fall of 2014 using the same version of its Antares rocket.

SpaceX, as its smaller rival is called, has already completed a pair of regular resupply missions to the station and is slated to send three more of its unmanned Dragon capsules there by next fall. Started with a handful of employees near a strip mall 11 years ago, SpaceX is considered an icon of commercial-space endeavors, with well over 1,000 employees, a nearly one million square-foot California manufacturing complex, an engine-testing facility in Texas and an outsize lobbying presence on Capitol Hill.

Later on Sunday, SpaceX separately plans to launch a beefed-up version of its Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Canadian communication and research satellite. It is slated to be the company’s first launch using Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California—from where many U.S. spy satellites blast off—as well as the first mission for SpaceX’s new booster. The larger rocket has modified engines, longer fuel tanks and other differences from the smaller first-generation Falcon 9 rockets.

For Orbital, Sunday’s delivery of food, clothing and student experiments was the climax of more than five years of roller-coaster development and testing efforts. Best known for producing smaller satellites and less-powerful rockets, the company struggled to overcome serious engine problems that afflicted Antares, nagging launchpad delays and other technical challenges.

At the same time, SpaceX captured the limelight by surging ahead in the competition to reach the orbiting laboratory. Orbital’s management also sought to persuade investors and analysts alike that the investments in Antares eventually will pay off partly by helping penetrate evolving commercial launch markets.

From NASA’s perspective, the smooth rendezvous is expected to boost the prospects for continued congressional funding of commercial initiatives to take astronauts into orbit by 2017.

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Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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