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Friday, December 2, 2016

Washington (AFP) — Orbital Sciences Corporation’s unmanned cargo ship arrived Wednesday at the International Space Station carrying a load of food and equipment for the six-man crew at the research outpost.

The vessel called Cygnus was grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm at 6:36 am (1036 GMT) and will complete its latch-on operation to the ISS in about two hours, NASA said.

The spacecraft launched from Wallops Island, Virginia on Sunday.

Astronauts are scheduled to open the hatch on Thursday, but they may do so as early as Wednesday if the work of bolting the cargo ship to the orbiting lab goes faster than planned.

American astronaut Steve Swanson operated the orbiting lab’s robotic arm to pull the cargo ship closer, in preparation for berthing around 1230 GMT, NASA said.

The spacecraft is packed with 3,653 pounds (1,657 kilograms) of gear for the space station, including a new set of satellites, experiments for growing arugula in space, and a pump for the Japanese module to replace one that failed.

The mission, known as Orb-2, is the second of eight that Orbital has contracted with NASA, and is the third journey by a Cygnus to the International Space Station after a successful demonstration trip last year.

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are the two private U.S. companies that have won major contracts with NASA for multiple missions to carry supplies to the International Space Station.

Orbital’s deal is worth $1.9 billion and SpaceX’s contract is for $1.6 billion.

Orbital’s cargo ships burn up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, unlike SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which makes an intact splash landing in the ocean.

NASA lost its capacity to reach the space station after the 30-year space shuttle program ended in 2011.

SpaceX and Orbital now make regular resupply journeys with their unmanned cargo ships. Europe and Russia also have their own spaceships that can tote equipment and provisions to the research outpost.

In order for astronauts to get there, nations must buy seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost of $70.7 million each. The spaceship carries three people at a time.

Several American companies are competing to be the first to complete a crew vehicle that will restore U.S. access to the station in the next few years.

AFP Photo / Bill Ingalls

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