Commercial space flight took another step forward today as NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Virginia launched Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft for a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). The unmanned cargo ship lifted off at 10:58 AM EDT atop an Orbital Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and is intended as a demonstration flight of the Cygnus to show its suitability for delivering supplies to the ISS.

About 11 minutes after takeoff, mission control confirmed the separation of the spacecraft from the Antares second stage and the deployment of it solar panels. Now orbiting the Earth at a speed of 17,500 mph (28,100 km/h), this particular Cygnus is named "G. David Low," after a former NASA astronaut who passed away in 2008, and is the first spacecraft launched from Wallops to the ISS.

Meanwhile, as the Antares lifted off, the ISS Expedition 37 crew of three, orbiting the Earth 261 miles above the southern Indian Ocean, watched the launch on a laptop computer in the station's Destiny laboratory. Two of the crew spent the day going over Cygnus' cargo manifest, planning how to unload it before reloading the craft with the ISS's rubbish, and then carrying out review training on the Cygnus docking.

Over the next four days, Cygnus will fire its engine to match the ISS's trajectory and will also be put through a series of demonstration tests of navigation, abort procedures, and communication systems. The rendezvous with the space station is scheduled for Sunday, September 22, when it will go through a series of maneuvers as it pauses at various distances while the Expedition 37 crew carries out safety checks before allowing the spacecraft to enter the 656-ft (200-m) "keep-out sphere" and come close enough to the station to be captured by the robotic Canadarm and guided to a docking port at 7:25 AM CDT.

Once secured, the crew of the ISS will unload 1,300 lb (589 kg) of cargo, consisting of water, office supplies, food, and clothing. Since this is a demonstration flight, the Cygnus is not fully loaded.

About 30 days after arrival, Cygnus will leave the ISS. Unlike SpaceX's Dragon, which splashed down in the Pacific, Cygnus is on a one-way mission. After being loaded with station rubbish, it will undock from the ISS and fire its rockets to send it plummeting two days later into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up somewhere over the South Pacific.

Cygnus separating from the upper stage of Antares (Image: NASA TV)

Cygnus and Antares are being developed under a US$1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Other candidate companies, such as SpaceX and the Sierra Nevada Corporation, also developed similar spacecraft and launch systems in hopes of securing the commercial contract to regularly resupply the ISS. This flight marks the 29th and final milestone in Orbital's certification to begin flights to the ISS.

"Antares is the largest and most complex rocket Orbital has ever produced," says David W. Thompson, Orbital's President and Chief Executive Officer. "After its flawless inaugural flight in April, we have been actively preparing for this next critical, much-anticipated milestone. Likewise, Cygnus is one of the most sophisticated spacecraft Orbital has developed and built. As an integral part of the Space Station program, it meets NASA's requirements for a human-rated level of safety. Our engineering and operations teams are very excited to be on the threshold of launching and conducting this mission, which they have been working toward for the last five years."

Orbital plans to begin regular flights to the station in December as part of its contract to deliver about 20,000 kg (44,000 lb) of cargo over eight missions through 2016.

The video below shows the launch of the Antares rocket.

Source: NASA

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