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Antares launch with Cygnus cargo ship
Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket lifts off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, sending a robotic Cygnus cargo capsule into orbit. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Almost four tons of supplies, hardware and science payloads are heading to the International Space Station after today’s launch of a robotic Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo ship.

The spacecraft, dubbed the SS Roger Chaffee in honor of one of the astronauts killed in the 1967 Apollo 1 launch-pad fire, was sent into orbit from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast at 4:46 p.m. ET (1:46 p.m. PT) atop Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket. The afternoon launch could be seen from a wide area of the East Coast’s mid-Atlantic region.

Cygnus’ 7,600-pound shipment includes experiments aimed at manufacturing high-quality optical fiber in zero-gravity, as well as nanoparticles that could someday be used for drug delivery. A host of nanosatellites are on board and due for deployment either from the space station or from the cylindrical Cygnus craft itself.

Another piece of hardware aboard the Cygnus, known as the Robotic External Leak Locator or RELL, will serve as a mechanical “sniffer” to detect external ammonia leaks from the station’s cooling system.

This is the 11th Cygnus mission flown under the terms of a cargo resupply contract with NASA, but the first to make use of a procedure for loading last-minute cargo. Among the late payloads was a troop of mice that will be used in a study of their immune response to a tetanus vaccine under zero-G conditions.

Astronauts will use the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm to haul in the Cygnus for its berthing early Friday. It’ll spend a couple of months hooked up to the station, and will then be set loose for a first-of-its-kind, free-flying orbital mission that could last into the fall. At the end of its mission, the robotic craft will descend to a fiery end during atmospheric re-entry.

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