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After two-year hiatus, Orbital ATK Cygnus arrives at space station

The International Space Station has successfully plucked its first cargo shipment launched from Virginia's Wallops Island via an Orbital ATK Cygnus capsule, following a nearly two-year pause in deliveries prompted by a 2014 launch explosion.

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    This photo provided by NASA TV shows the Cygnus resupply ship, above, slowly approaching the International Space Station before the Canadarm2 reaches out and grapples it on Sunday. Once the Cygnus is unloaded, it will be filled with trash and set loose to burn up in the atmosphere in mid-November.
    NASA TV via AP
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A capsule carrying 5,300 pounds of food, clothing, spare parts, lab equipment, and science experiments arrived at the International Space Station Sunday morning.

Astronauts grabbed the vehicle, called Cygnus, with a robotic arm and pulled it to the station for docking. Over the next month the crew will unload its contents while Cygnus remains tethered to the station. Ultimately, the space station crew will reload the empty vessel with about 4,000 pounds of trash and release it to burn up in the atmosphere in mid-November.

But before the vehicle destroys itself, an onboard experiment called Spacecraft Fire Experiment-II, or Saffire-II, will intentionally start a small fire to test how zero gravity and limited oxygen affect flame size and the spread of fire. Data from Saffire-II will be downloaded remotely, according to an Orbital ATK announcement. Before it disintegrates, Cygnus also will release several cubesats, or mini satellites, to be used for weather forecasting.

Though it took the capsule only a week to reach the science lab, orbiting 220 miles above the Earth at an average speed of 17,227 miles per hour, the trip was years in the making. It marks the first time in two years that a rocket lifted off from Virginia’s Wallops Island. The rocket, called Antares, flew again for the first time since a 2014 launch explosion grounded the vehicle and closed down the launchpad. While the maker of the Antares rocket, Sterling, Va.-based Orbital ATK, redesigned it and rebuilt the pad, the NASA contractor kept space station deliveries going by using another company’s rocket, which launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The Antares rocket's highly anticipated launch was set for Sunday, Oct. 16, but was canceled at the last minute by a faulty cable. It finally blasted off the following day but had to orbit for more time than the usual couple of days to clear the way for three astronauts who arrived on Friday aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. Their arrival doubled the size of the crew, which now includes a Japanese astronaut, two Americans, and three Russians.

Orbital is one of two private companies hired by NASA to deliver cargo to the space station. The other is SpaceX, which also has faced major technical setbacks. Just last month, a test of its Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral ended in an explosion on the launch pad. SpaceX's explosion is not expected to cause major cargo-delivery delays, according to the company, which says it could resume delivery in November.

SpaceX and Boeing are expected to start ferrying astronauts to the space station in the next couple of years. Today only Russia can launch humans to space aboard its Soyuz rocket. As USA Today reported in 2015, it costs US taxpayers about $75 million for every ride to the space station, a sum that could rise to $82 million in 2018.

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