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Private Cygnus spacecraft on its way to deliver food and clothing to space station

NASA launched a 1,500-pound care package today through Cygnus, its newest unmanned commercial spacecraft that will deliver food and clothing to the International Space Station. 

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Cygnus is the second commercial spacecraft to launch toward the space station for NASA. The first private spaceship to visit the space station was the robotic Dragon space capsule built by billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX, a company based in Hawthorne, Calif.

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SpaceX has a $1.6 billion deal to provide 12 cargo delivery flights to the station for NASA using the Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 rockets. Two of those missions have already flown, most recently in March of this year. SpaceX's Dragon space capsules have a heat shield that allows them to return cargo back to Earth. [See photos of Dragon's 2nd cargo delivery mission]

A disposable spaceship

Unlike SpaceX's Dragon, Cygnus spacecraft are disposable vehicles designed for one-way delivery trips to the space station. At the end of their missions, they will be filled with trash and commanded to burn up in Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

The first Cygnus is expected to spend at least 30 days at the space station before being discarded in mid-October. Orbital named the spacecraft the Spaceship G. David Low after a former NASA astronaut who oversaw Orbital's successful bids for its NASA contracts. Low died of cancer in 2008.

Built for Orbital by Thales Alenia Space in Italy, the baseline Cygnus model is about 17 feet (5 meters) long and can carry up to 4,409 pounds (2,000 kilograms) of cargo to the space station. A larger version of the craft, called the "enhanced" design, is expected to haul even more supplies.

But for this first Cygnus demonstration flight (which Orbital has dubbed the Orb-D1 mission), the spacecraft is carrying just over 1,500 pounds (700 kg) of food, clothing and spare parts to support the space station's Expedition 37 crew.

"It is not fully packed for this demonstration mission, but it certainly has some important supplies," Lindenmoyer told reporters here Tuesday (Sept. 17).

Culbertson said NASA likely has included a little bonus care package amid the cargo for the space station's crew.

"We don't actually open the bags to look at them," Culbertson quipped Tuesday. "But, yes, there are some goodies for the astronauts on board."

Space station launches from Virginia

Today's Cygnus launch marked one unique first for NASA: the first launch to the space station from Virginia's Eastern Shore.

The Antares rocket carrying Cygnus lifted off from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a commercial spaceport operated by Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. NASA officials were expecting nearly 1,000 people at the Wallops facility to watch the launch, with thousands more expected to see the launch from nearby viewing sites and along the U.S. East Coast.

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