Orbital Sciences' cargo ship Cygnus has become the second private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station

Cygnus docks at ISS while SpaceX tests improved rocket

Orbital Sciences’ commercial cargo vessel Cygnus has docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday, completing the primary goal of its test flight.

Cygnus’s arrival was delayed by a week first due to a software glitch and then because of a priority arrival of a manned Soyuz spacecraft bringing a new crew to the ISS.

Finally, before 11am on Sunday, the spacecraft parked some 12m from the station, before Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano and his American counterpart Karen Nyberg grabbed it with the station’s robotic arm and connected it to the berthing point of the Harmony module.

Cygnus is part of Nasa’s Commercial Space Development Program. The agency awarded Orbital Sciences some £178m to develop the capsule and the Antares rocket. With the test flight achieving the major milestone, Cygnus is set to conduct its first paid cargo delivery mission to the ISS in the upcoming months, with the first commercial launch attempt scheduled for December.

Nasa will pay Orbital Sciences $1.9bn for eight resupply missions.

The capsule delivered more than 680kg of food, clothing and supplies to the station. Before its departure, the spacecraft will be filled with trash and sent to burn in the Earth’s atmosphere.

European defence company Thales Alenia Space has worked as a primary contractor on the capsule’s development and manufacturing.

At this point, Nasa is Orbital Sciences’ only customer, however, the company believes it will be able attract private and governmental clients from all over the world

Orbital Sciences’ competitor SpaceX has already performed two resupply missions to the ISS with its Dragon capsule under a $1.5bn Nasa contract. Unlike Cygnus, Dragon is designed as reusable, not burning in atmosphere during re-entry but returning to the Earth.

This weekend, SpaceX has tested its upgraded Falcon 9 rocket in California before commencing commercial launch services.

The 22-story rocket Falcon 9 soared off a newly refurbished, leased launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Station at 4pm GMT on Sunday.

During the test launch, Falcon 9 delivered to polar orbit a small science and communications satellite Cassiope built by a Canadian company MDA.

The upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 has engines that are 60 per cent more powerful than those of the previous versions. It features longer fuel tanks, new avionics and new software - all designed to boost lift capacity and simplify operations for commercial service.

SpaceX has already signed contracts for more than 50 launches of its Falcon 9 and currently developed Falcon Heavy rockets. Apart from Nasa, its customers include several non-US government agencies and commercial satellite operators.

SpaceX also has two contracts for small US Air Force satellites and is looking to break the monopoly of United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that has been exclusively launching big military satellites.

The company advertises Falcon 9 launch services for $56.5 million. SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said he would like to discount that price by recycling and reusing the Falcon's first stage. Currently, the spent boosters splash down into the ocean and cannot be reused.

To achieve this goal, SpaceX has been developing a Grasshopper concept, enabling to fly a booster back to its launch site.

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