Orbital Sciences’ Spacecraft Returns to Earth as Blazing Ball of Trash

Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus spacecraft ends its mission today with a blazing reentry over the Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand, carrying more than a ton of trash from the International Space Station.

Astronauts aboard the space station loaded the unmanned Cygnus with 2,850 pounds of refuse before using the station’s robotic arm to push it 10 meters away from the station and cut it loose.

The successful departure was the final stage of a demonstration flight meant to show NASA that Orbital has the right stuff to carry cargo into space. Cygnus launched on top of one of Orbital’s Antares rockets from coastal Virginia on Sept. 18. After a software glitch and traffic delay, the cargo carrierberthed with the ISS on Sept. 29. It spent three weeks there.

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX have contracts to deliver cargo to the station. This flight was Orbital’s final demonstration, and other than a minor software miscommunication before the craft’s rendezvous with the ISS, it went off without a hitch — it was “nominal,” as the space launch community likes to say.

Cygnus carried about 1,300 pounds of cargo, which was unloaded by the six astronauts living aboard the station. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, Cygnus does not land on Earth and therefore cannot bring anything back. But Cygnus makes a good garbage truck, incinerating its payload as its orbit deteriorates and mounting friction with the atmosphere causes the spacecraft to burn up during reentry.

Orbital Sciences is well underway with its first contracted cargo mission, which is expected to launch at the end of the year. The company will make eight freight runs under a contract worth $1.9 billion. The first of SpaceX’s 10 remaining flights are expected to resume early next year, launched by the improved Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket.


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