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Cygnus launch
Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket rises from its launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

Two uncrewed cargo craft are now en route to the International Space Station, thanks to the launch of a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spaceship atop an Antares rocket.

Liftoff came right on time at 4:01 a.m. ET (1:01 a.m. PT) today at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. NASA said the Antares’ ascent should have been visible from a stretch of America’s East Coast ranging from Massachusetts to the Carolinas, given acceptable weather conditions and viewing elevation.

A round of applause could be heard at Wallops’ launch control center when spacecraft separation was announced.

The rocket’s red glare came less than 15 hours after Russia’s robotic Progress spaceship began its trip to the space station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The close timing was the result of a couple of weather-caused delays for the Cygnus launch. The Progress is due to rendezvous with the station on Sunday, followed by the Cygnus’ arrival on Monday.

About 7,400 pounds of cargo is on its way to the station aboard the Cygnus, which has been christened the S.S. John Young in honor of the pioneering NASA astronaut who died in January. That cargo includes crew supplies (with ice cream and fruit for holiday goodies), plus station hardware and science experiments. Among those experiments are:

  • A 3-D printer and recycler called the Refabricator, built by Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited. Refabricator will test techniques to turn waste plastic into the raw materials for newly manufactured items — a capability that will come in handy for future bases on the moon and Mars.
  • An experiment aimed at creating artificial chondrules, which are the main mineral components of many meteorites and are believed to be the building blocks of our solar system. The experiment could help scientists gain insights into the primordial origins of chondrules.
  • A crystal growth experiment that’s expected to produce research-quality samples of a protein called leucine-rich repeat kinase 2, or LRRK2. The protein is closely associated with the development of Parkinson’s disease, and it’s thought to be easier to grow large, regularly shaped crystals of LRRK2 in zero gravity. The study is funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
  • A lab-on-a-chip experiment that will study how muscle cells atrophy in space, and a miniaturized centrifuge that’s designed to make concrete in space.

For more about the experiments aboard the Cygnus, check out the detailed rundowns from NASA and the ISS National Lab.

Once the Cygnus is hooked up to the station, it’ll remain berthed there until February. Then it’ll be set loose to deploy several nanosatellites and descend to a fiery doom during atmospheric re-entry.

Postscript for 12:15 p.m. PT Nov. 19: The Cygnus craft was captured using the space station’s robotic arm at 2:28 a.m. PT Nov. 19, and bolted onto its port on the station’s Unity module a little more than two hours later. Cygnus’ delivery came a day after the Russian Soyuz cargo ship’s arrival and successful docking.

Here’s a roundup of snapshots from Cygnus’ launch on the Antares rocket:

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