Cygnus cargo ship successfully attached to space station

The Cygnus cargo ship moves in to dock with the International Space Station on January 12, 2014, as the moon hovers in the background. NASA via Twitter

A commercial cargo ship loaded with nearly 1.5 tons of supplies and equipment was captured by the International Space Station's robot arm early Sunday and attached to a docking port, wrapping up a complex but problem-free rendezvous.

The Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo craft, launched Thursday from Wallops Island, Va., was captured by arm operator Mike Hopkins at 6:08 a.m. EST (GMT-5) as the two spacecraft sailed 260 miles above the Indian Ocean. Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata then maneuvered the spacecraft to the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module where motorized bolts locked it into place at 8:05 a.m.

Named after the late astronaut and test pilot C. Gordon Fullerton, the Cygnus cargo ship is packed with 2,780 pounds of spare parts, crew supplies and experiment hardware, including 23 experiments involving more than 8,600 elementary, junior high and high school students in the United States and Canada.

An "ants in space" payload will give students and opportunity to study behavioral differences between ants in normal gravity and those in the weightless environment of space. Other experiments will study the biology of drug-resistant bacteria and how liquids simulating rocket fuel slosh around in weightlessness.

Along with on-board science, the Cygnus is delivering more than two dozen small "cubesat" satellites, including a fleet of 23 "Dove" satellites built by Planet Labs of San Francisco that will monitor the global environment.

A crowd-funded cubesat provided by Southern Stars, also of San Francisco, will allow the public to send "tweets from space" that can be picked up by amateur radio operators. Users also will be able to request Earth images from the satellite.

Also on board: belated holiday gifts for the station crew. The Cygnus capsule originally was scheduled for launch before Christmas, but the flight was pushed into January when NASA ran into problems with the space station's cooling system.

This is the first operational station resupply mission carried out by Orbital Sciences under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA calling for at least eight flights and delivery of 40,000 pounds of cargo and supplies.

The Cygnus captured Sunday will remain attached to the space station until mid February. At that point SpaceX will step up with launch of a Dragon cargo ship around Feb. 22. It will be the third operational resupply flight by SpaceX, which holds a $1.6 billion contract to deliver more than 44,000 pounds of supplies over a dozen missions.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

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