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Cygnus spacecraft launches to International Space Station

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The Cygnus spacecraft has successfully launched on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Takeoff took place at 12:52 EDT on 13 July, on a privately-managed resupply mission to the orbiting science outpost. Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia, operated by NASA, was used as the base of operations.

After a flight to space lasting just ten minutes, solar wings successfully deployed from the craft, to satisfy electrical needs. The vehicle was placed into the proper trajectory to reach space travelers aboard the space station, orbiting between 120 and 180 miles above the planet. Communications have been established between the vehicle and mission planners on the ground.

The Cygnus resupply vehicle is expected to arrive at the ISS at 6:39 a.m. on 16 July (EDT). It is carrying 3,669 pounds of supplies to the orbiting science facility. A robotic arm attached to the ISS will be used to capture the Cygnus vehicle.

"Cygnus is planned to remain berthed at the ISS for approximately 30 days during which time the station crew will unload cargo from Cygnus and subsequently load it with materials for disposal. At the end of the mission Cygnus will depart the station and reenter the Earth's atmosphere," Orbital Services mission planners wrote.

An Antares rocket booster was used to carry the craft to space. This was the fourth successful launch of the rocket over the last 15 months. This also marked the second operational mission to the International Space Station. The first two flights were test flights, although the second one did reach the orbiting outpost.

Liftoff was delayed by several small issues, including ships in range of the rocket. An area needed for splashdown of the vehicle's first stage was populated with ships.

"The Coast Guard went out to try to turn them around - one of them didn't want to turn around. I don't think they believed them," Frank Culbertson, vice-president of Orbital Services, told reporters.

Among the cargo are 28 mini-satellites managed by Planet Labs of San Francisco. These miniature observatories will study the Earth as they orbit around our planet.

Space X, owned by PayPal pioneer Elon Musk, also contracts with NASA to ferry supplies to the ISS. The federal space agency is paying the private developers a total of $3.5 billion for the deliveries.

Antares is a two-stage rocket, capable of delivering payloads up to 13,500 pounds. The rocket was first launched on 21 April 2013. The rocket uses many previously-tested components, and a combination of liquid- and solid-fueled engines. Cygnus is another "low-risk" design, using several proven and reliable operating systems.

Orbital Services still has six of eight missions left on their contract to bring supplies to the space station.

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