A US commercial rocket operator has launched a cargo capsule bound for the International Space Station. It is part of NASA's plan to use two US aerospace contractors since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.
The first of eight commercial cargo capsules intended for the ISS was launched from the US state of Virginia on Thursday. The unmanned freighter, called Cygnus, is carrying more than a ton of equipment, fresh food and belated Christmas gifts.
The launch using an Antares rocket was made by the firm Orbital Sciences and came a month later than intended. A second firm SpaceX is preparing for its third supply flight on February 22 from Florida.
Both companies are expected to benefit from the Obama administration's decision on Wednesday to extend the operating lifespan of the ISS by four years to at least 2024.
The international project, begun in 1998, involves 15 nations, including Russia which still operates Soyuz supply capsules after the US canceled its own space shuttle program.
Waiting on ISS
Waiting on board the ISS for the Cygnus's arrival on Sunday are US, Russian and Japanese specialists.
"It's going to be an exciting weekend," said Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata in a message.
Once unloaded, the Cygnus will be filled with trash and cut loose from the ISS for a fiery re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
The cargo flight had been delayed three times since December, most recently because of a solar storm and frigid temperatures at the launch site on Wallops Island, Virginia on the US eastern coast.
Orbital Sciences first conducted a test run in September. Two more cargo trips are scheduled for this year.
ipj/jm (Reuters, AP)