An Orbital Sciences Corp cargo ship reached the International Space Station on Wednesday with a delivery of food, supplies, science experiments and a fleet of tiny Earth-imaging satellites that will be launched from the orbital outpost.
Working from a control panel inside the station's Cupola module, commander Steven Swanson delicately steered the station's 58-foot long (18 m) robotic arm to pluck the Cygnus capsule from orbit at 6:36 a.m. EDT (1036 GMT) as the ships sailed 260 miles (418 km) above northern Libya.
"I think everyone is breathing again," NASA robotics officer Melanie Miller radioed to the crew from Mission Control in Houston.
The capsule, named SS Janice Voss in tribute to a five-time space shuttle astronaut who died in 2012, blasted off aboard an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket from Virginia on Sunday.
"We now have a seventh crewmember," Swanson radioed to Mission Control. "Welcome aboard the ISS, Janice."
Later on Wednesday, the capsule will be bolted to a docking port on the station's Harmony module so Swanson and his five crewmates can begin unpacking more than 3,600 pounds (1,660 kg) of food, equipment and supplies.
The cargo includes 28 shoebox-sized satellites for privately owned Planet Labs, which operates a constellation of Earth-imaging satellites. The satellites will be deployed this summer from a small satellite launcher set up in Japan's Kibo module.
"Our goal is to image the whole Earth every day ... and then put it online for people to get access to it," Robbie Schlinger, co-founder of the San Francisco-based company, told reporters during a prelaunch news conference.
To that end, Planet Labs, which already has flown 42 ultra-compact satellites, intends to operate a network of 100 spacecraft, which would allow it to collect images of the entire Earth every 24 hours.
"It's really about getting rich data, to make it actionable and accessible to people," Schlinger said.
Cygnus is to remain berthed at the station until mid-August. Once it is unpacked, it will be refilled with trash and other items no longer needed on the station and released to fly back into the atmosphere for incineration.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have been contracted by NASA to resupply the ISS.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported "Orbital Sciences has been building satellites and building and launching rockets for more than 30 years. SpaceX was founded in 2002. Their approaches to designing and building their rockets are markedly different. SpaceX has prided itself on designing and building its hardware in-house..."
Orbital Sciences, on the other hand, has built its Antares rocket largely from hardware that already has been space tested, explains Lennard Fisk, a professor of space science at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a member of Orbital Sciences' board of directors.
The company turned to Ukraine's Yuzhnoye Design Bureau to help with the tanks, pumps, and plumbing needed to support Antares's two liquid-fuel motors – themselves built in the former Soviet Union but modified for Antares by a US rocket-motor company. Yuzhnoye builds Russia's Zenit rockets.
The second stage [of the Antares rocket] is powered by a solid-fuel motor built by the company that produced the solid-fuel boosters for the space shuttle.
On Monday, SpaceX successfully delivered six satellites to orbit, but failed to recover the booster, according to tweets by company founder Elon Musk.
“Rocket booster reentry, landing burn & leg deploy were good, but lost hull integrity right after splashdown (aka kaboom)," Musk wrote. “Detailed review of rocket telemetry needed to tell if due to initial splashdown or subsequent tip over and body slam”
(Reporting and writing by Irene Klotz; Editing by Bill Trott)