The Cygnus spacecraft has pulled away from the International Space Station (ISS), carrying 3,500 pounds of trash to be destroyed. Cygnus was released early on the morning of 15 August, 260 miles above the southwestern coast of Africa.
Orbital Sciences Corporation designed the vehicle, which launched in the middle of July, from a spaceport in Virginia. Cygnus was packed with 3,000 pounds of valuable equipment, supplies and experiments for use by space travelers aboard the ISS.
"Hardware upgrades were brought up to the station on the ship for a trio of tiny satellites that float inside the station known as SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites). Gear enabling studies for educators, students and private researchers was also delivered," NASA officials wrote.
Cygnus was released from the ISS using the Canadian-designed Canadarm2 robotic arm, similar to the one once deployed on the space shuttle. The vehicle will be directed toward the Earth on 17 August, a command that will doom the spacecraft - as well as the refuse it contains - to burning up in the atmosphere, during a fiery re-entry. This event will be watched and recorded by crew members aboard the space station, more than 200 miles above the surface of our home world.
A European supply vehicle recently arrived at the ISS, after launch from French Guinea. The vehicle will also be closely monitored after its release early in 2015. Mission planners want to study how these smaller craft break up while entering the atmosphere, in preparation for the end of the International Space Station, That $150 billion dollar orbiting outpost is expected to operate for 10 to 20 more years. The role of Russia in the next generation of space station is in question, as they appear to be developing their own program.
Cygnus was released from the International Space Station at 6:40 a.m. EDT, an event televised by NASA.
"Cygnus is free of the International Space Station," a NASA commentator said, following the departure.
The de-orbit burn command will be given at 8:33 a.m. EDT on Sunday morning, nudging the spacecraft-turned-garbage-barge toward the Earth. The vehicle is expected to be destroyed in a brilliant blaze 38 minutes later. Most shooting stars are roughly the size of apple seeds. The Cygnus spacecraft is a cylinder 12 feet long, and 10 feet in diameter. Fully loaded with refuse, the craft has a mass of over 6,600 pounds.
SpaceX, like Orbital Sciences, has contracted with NASA to deliver supplies to the international space facility. They are scheduled to deliver their next payload to the space station in September.