NASA handout still image from video shows unmanned US commercial cargo ship Cygnus being attached to the International Space Station
By Irene Klotz
(Reuters) - An unmanned U.S. commercial cargo ship flew to the International Space Station on Sunday, completing the primary goal of its test flight before supply runs begin in December.
After a series of successful steering maneuvers, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus freighter parked about 39 feet from the station at 6:50 a.m. EDT/1050 GMT as the ships sailed 260 miles above the Southern Ocean south of Africa.
Ten minutes later, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano and NASA's Karen Nyberg used the station's robotic arm to pluck the capsule from orbit and guide it to a berthing slip on the station's Harmony connecting node.
"That's a long time coming, looks great," radioed astronaut Catherine Coleman from NASA's Mission Control in Houston.
Cygnus' arrival had been delayed a week - first by a software glitch and then by the higher priority docking of a Russian Soyuz capsule ferrying three new crewmembers to the $100 billion outpost, a project of 15 nations.
Orbital Sciences' new unmanned Antares rocket blasted off on September 18 from a new launch pad on the Virginia coast to put Cygnus into orbit.
"We learned a lot on this one," Orbital Sciences executive vice president Frank Culbertson told reporters after launch.
NASA contributed $288 million toward Antares' and Cygnus' development and awarded Orbital Sciences a $1.9 billion contract for eight station resupply missions, the first of which is targeted for December.
The U.S. space agency also provided $396 million to privately owned Space Exploration Technologies to help develop the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship. The company, known as SpaceX, holds a $1.5 billion NASA contract for 12 cargo runs to the station, two of which already have been completed.
Unlike SpaceX's Dragon capsule, Cygnus is not designed to return to Earth. After astronauts unload more than 1,500 pounds (680 kg) of food, clothing and supplies that were packed aboard Cygnus, it will be filled with trash, detached from the station and flown into the atmosphere for incineration.
Thales Alenia Space, a consortium led by Europe's largest defense electronics company, France's Thales, is a prime contractor on the capsule.
For now, NASA is the only customer for Cygnus, but Orbital Sciences expects additional business as the United States and other countries launch exploration initiatives beyond the space station's orbit.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz in Lompoc, California; Editing by Bill Trott and Stacey Joyce)