Published: Wed, October 19, 2016
Research | By Jennifer Evans

Rocket launch reignites space station deliveries in Virginia

It was the first flight of Orbital ATK's unmanned Antares rocket since the October 28, 2014, blast that wrecked the pad and destroyed everything on the space station supply run. The cargo ship, named Cygnus after the swan constellation, will have to hang around in orbit until Sunday before making the 5,000-pound delivery.

Astronauts aboard the space station are exposed to space radiation that can reduce immune response, increase cancer risk, and interfere with electronics.

"We have Cygnus spacecraft separation", an Orbital ATK commentator said amid the sound of applause in mission control.

Next up will be private flights for the station crews, as the space agency works on getting astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

The Cygnus spacecraft will remain at the space station until November before its destructive reentry into Earth's atmosphere, disposing of about 1,360.7 kg of trash, according to NASA.

The previous Antares launch, which ended in disaster took place on October 28, 2014.

After an investigation, Orbital blamed the accident on a flaw in the rocket's AJ26 engines, which had been designed four decades earlier in the Soviet Union, and were supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Earlier Orbital had conducted a static 30 seconds test firing of the Antares at the Virginia launch pad on May 31 but had never flown a rocket featuring the new engines from Russian Federation.

"It is great to be back", said Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK's space systems group.

"I'm very proud of the team".

Given the riskiness of space flight, Culbertson and other Orbital ATK officials expressed nervousness before the launch, but said they had full confidence in the rocket.

Monday marked the third such flight of a similarly improved Cygnus vehicle, with new solar arrays and fuel tanks.

That rocket and its cargo module were carrying 5,900 pounds of supplies and experiments. While the Antares was being redesigned, Orbital ATK made good on two deliveries using another company's rockets flying from Cape Canaveral. The success of the launch was even more important for the USA space agency after an accident destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket which was operated by Elon Musk's SpaceX.

For now, the world's astronauts must purchase seats aboard Russia's Soyuz spaceships at a cost of some $71 million each.

NASA has also signed contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to begin launching astronauts to space in the next two years.

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