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Antares launch
Orbital ATK’s Antares rocked rises from its Virginia launch pad, sending a robotic Cygnus cargo ship into space. (NASA Photo / Audrey Gemignani)

Update for 10 p.m. PT May 24: Astronauts used the International Space Station’s robotic arm to snag Orbital ATK’s robotic Cygnus cargo ship and attach it to the station after a three-day trip. Over the course of seven weeks or so, the room-sized spacecraft will be unloaded, then loaded up with trash and set loose.

Previously: Orbital ATK sent its robotic Cygnus cargo spaceship on its way to the International Space Station on May 21, loaded up with more than 7,200 pounds of supplies, equipment and science experiments.

The two-stage Antares rocket rose from its launch pad from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at 4:44 a.m. ET (1:44 a.m. PT), lighting up the predawn sky for observers across a wide swath of the mid-Atlantic coast.

Mission managers pushed liftoff to the very end of a five-minute opportunity to let the weather clear.

Orbital ATK launches the Cygnus atop its Antares rocket under the terms of a commercial cargo resupply contract with NASA. It’s similar to the deal that NASA has with SpaceX. This Cygnus has been christened the S.S. J.R. Thompson in honor of Orbital’s former chief operating officer, who died last year.

Spacecraft separation came minutes after launch. Over the next three days, the cylindrical Cygnus craft will catch up with the space station for its berthing.

Packed aboard the Cygnus are basics such as food and tanks of oxygen, hardware including computers and high-definition cameras, and a wide range of science experiments.

One of the more unusual science payloads is an old-fashioned sextant, which astronauts will use to practice navigational techniques that don’t rely on high-tech systems. The centuries-old technology would let astronauts determine their position by getting a fix on the moon, planets or stars in the event that the space station’s communication systems or computers suffered a glitch.

“We want a robust, mechanical backup with as few parts and as little need for power as possible to get you back home safely,” principal investigator Greg Holt explained in a pre-launch news release.

Another experiment, the Cold Atom Lab, will create the coldest conditions in the universe to let scientists study weird quantum behavior in zero-G.

Earlier experiments have found that superchilled atoms collapse into a single quantum state, but the phenomenon has never been studied in weightlessness. Physicists suspect that the weird conglomeration, known as Bose-Einstein condensate, will last longer on the space station.

Other science payloads include E. coli bacteria that have been genetically engineered to help produce biofuel, an experiment aimed at identifying strains of microbes on the space station, and plant seeds that could blaze a trail for future space farming.

Cygnus is also carrying 15 nanosatellites for orbital deployment, including experimental star-tracking spacecraft, an X-ray detector that will look for a halo of hot gas around the Milky Way, and four remote-sensing satellites that are being launched for Spire Global.

Once the Cygnus is hooked up to the space station, astronauts will unload the cargo, load it back up with trash and set it loose. At the end of its mission in July, the Cygnus will burn up during controlled re-entry through the atmosphere.

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