Seen from above - the launch of Cygnus spacecraft photographed from the International Space Station

Cygnus resumes flights to ISS after year-long hiatus

The Cygnus cargo space capsule has returned to flight on Sunday after a 13-month break enforced by an in-launch explosion in late October 2014. 

Carrying 3,500kg of food, clothing, computer gear, spacewalk equipment and science experiments, the capsule shot off toward the International Space Station on Sunday at 21.44 GMT from Cape Canaveral.

The capsule’s developer and operator, US space transportation firm Orbital Sciences, used a United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket instead of its own Antares, which caused the accident last year.

The Cygnus launch, delayed for three days due to bad weather, is the first departure of a US-operated freighter towards the space station since April. The second US cargo delivery vehicle, SpaceX-operated Dragon, has been grounded since late June 2015 following a post-launch explosion.

Orbital used the hiatus to enhance the capsule to increase its size and capacity. In addition to the 25 per cent greater payload capacity, the capsule now features new solar arrays and fuel tanks.

Originally scheduled for April this year, the mission is the fifth for Cygnus (a demonstration flight included) flown under an eight-mission resupply contract with Nasa.

Virginia-headquartered Orbital, which hopes to return its own Antares rocket to flight in May 2016, purchased two Atlas 5 launches in order to resume work under the $1.9bn deal.

The grounding of both, Cygnus and Dragon, together with a loss of a Russian spacecraft earlier this year, caused the International Space Station to run low on supplies.

According to Nasa, the crew was left with only a four-month buffer at one point instead of the usual six-month margin.

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, which hopes to return its own system to flight later this month, are waiting to have their cargo delivery contracts with Nasa extended in January. They face competition from privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp, which is offering a robotic version of a small shuttle-like space plane called Dream Chaser. Boeing was eliminated from the competition last month.

Cygnus is scheduled to reach the ISS, a $100bn research laboratory circling the Earth at the altitude of 400km, on Wednesday morning.

Unlike Dragon, Cygnus is not reusable. At the end of its one-month stay at the station it will be loaded with some 1,400kg of waste and sent back towards the Earth to burn up in the atmosphere during re-entry.

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