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Antares rocket boosts cargo ship to orbit

Running a day late, an upgraded Orbital ATK Antares rocket climbed away from the coast of Virginia early Sunday, lifting a Cygnus cargo ship into orbit for a two-day trip to the International Space Station.

Making only its second flight, the Antares 230 first stage, sporting Russian-built RD-181 engines, flashed to life at 7:19:51 a.m. ET and quickly shot away from pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport -- MARS -- at NASA's Wallops Island, Virginia, flight facility.

A launch attempt on Saturday was aborted at the last minute when a small airplane strayed into the no-fly zone below the rocket's planned trajectory. Another short delay was ordered Sunday to make sure two boats approaching the restricted area stayed well clear at launch.

After that, it was clear sailing, and the 139-foot-tall booster -- trailing a brilliant jet of fiery exhaust -- quickly arced away to the southeast, knifing through low clouds as it climbed directly into the plane of the space station's orbit.

Three-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, at an altitude of nearly 62 miles, the first stage engines shut down and the stage fell away. About 40 seconds later, the rocket's solid-fuel second stage ignited for a two-minute, 43-second burn to complete the climb to orbit. The Cygnus cargo ship was released to fly on its own about two minutes after that.

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Loaded with nearly 7,400 pounds of equipment and supplies, the spacecraft is expected to reach the station early Tuesday, pulling up to within about 30 feet of the lab complex and then standing by while Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, operating the station's robot arm, locks on to a grapple fixture.

From there, flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston will take over arm operations, pulling the Cygnus in for berthing at the Earth-facing port of the station's central Unity module. The astronauts will begin unloading the spacecraft the next day.

Sunday's launch was NASA's fifth space station resupply flight this year, as well as Orbital ATK's eighth operational Cygnus flight since 2014 and the company's fifth since an earlier version of the Antares booster exploded seconds after launch in October 2014.

That failure was blamed on the rocket's original first-stage engines, built in the 1970s for the Soviet Union's ill-fated moon program. In the wake of the Antares failure, Orbital switched to state-of-the-art Russian-built RD-181 engines, buying three United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets as a stop-gap measure before successfully launching the first re-engined Antares 230 in October 2016.

Orbital's initial $1.9 billion contract with NASA called for eight Cygnus resupply fights. Three more were added later and the company expects to launch at least six additional missions under a second NASA contract that extends through 2024.

The Cygnus launched Sunday was loaded with 2,734 pounds of crew supplies, 1,631 pounds of science gear and supplies, 1,875 pounds of space station hardware, 281 pounds of spacewalk equipment and 75 pounds of computer gear.

In addition, two small "cubesats" will be moved into the station for launch later from the Japanese Kibo module along with three others already on board the lab. Fourteen other cubesats are mounted in a dispenser attached to the cargo ship. They will be launched after departure from the station on Dec. 4.

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Before the Cygnus is released, the station arm will position it within a few feet of a docking port atop the Harmony module, one of two that will be used by commercial crew ferry ships being built by Boeing and SpaceX.

The Cygnus will serve as a stand-in of sorts, allowing engineers to assess whether visiting spacecraft might interfere with station's ability to receive Global Positioning System navigation signals. The Cygnus will be held in place near Harmony's upper port for about 12 hours before being released from the arm on Dec. 4.

The cargo ship, loaded with several tons of space station trash and no-longer-needed equipment, then will plunge back into the atmosphere, burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

That same day, SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral carrying another load of supplies and equipment to the space station aboard a Dragon cargo capsule.

Ten days later, on Dec. 14, three space station crew members -- Sergey Ryazanskiy, Randy Bresnik and Nespoli -- plan to return to Earth aboard their Soyuz MS-05/51S ferry ship, landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan to close out a 138-day mission.

Three days after that, on Dec. 17, the Russians plan to launch the Soyuz MS-07/53S spacecraft carrying Anton Shkaplerov, Scott Tingle and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai. They will join Alexander Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba to boost the lab's crew back to six.

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