International Space Station Takes Out The Trash: Garbage-Filled Supply Ship Will Incinerate In The Atmosphere [VIDEO]

By Ben Wolford on February 18, 2014 4:56 PM EST

A supply ship that spent five weeks docked with the International Space Station was filled with garbage and released. (Photo: NASA)
A supply ship that spent five weeks docked with the International Space Station was filled with garbage and released. (Photo: NASA)

The cargo spaceship Cygnus looks a little like a beer keg with solar panels, developed privately under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA. But it doesn't need to look very spectacular: its only purpose is to shuttle supplies to the International Space Station and then self-destruct. By Tuesday morning it had accomplished the first half of its mission. Astronauts unloaded all the supplies and loaded it back up with trash, then sent it on its way back to Earth.

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Wednesday afternoon it is scheduled to incinerate in the Earth's atmosphere as it plummets toward the Pacific Ocean. "The U.S. commercial cargo craft will begin its de-orbit sequence shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday to enable it to slip out of orbit for a destructive entry into Earth's atmosphere," NASA said in a news release. "Cygnus will burn up over the Pacific Ocean later that afternoon." That will conclude the first of eight scheduled resupply missions to the ISS by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp.

It's a utilitarian end for an expensively wrought machine, developed, constructed, and launched between 2008 and the beginning of this year. The craft launched from Virginia on Jan. 9 carrying 2,780 pounds of scientific instruments and supplies for the crew, including materials for a variety of science experiments. Many of the experiments were designed by students around the country. In one experiment, the astronauts will determine whether ants behave the same in space as on Earth. In another, they will examine why antibiotics are less effective in space. For NASA, these fairly straightforward tests could prove useful for manned flights to an asteroid or Mars. It also carried "belated Christmas gifts," the Associated Press reported.

The Cygnus spacecraft stayed docked for about five weeks as astronauts unloaded it and reloaded it with hundreds of pounds of waste. (The ISS, after all, is just a fancy house.) Astronauts Mike Hopkins and Japan's Koichi Wakata maneuvered the craft loose early Tuesday morning about 260 miles above South America. Now that Cygnus is out of the way, it's SpaceX's turn. Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon supply ship will launch from Florida in March carrying more supplies to the ISS.

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