By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Orbital Sciences Corp, one of two companies hired by U.S. space agency NASA to make supply runs to the International Space Station, delivered its first cargo ship on Sunday, a NASA TV broadcast showed.
Space station flight engineer Mike Hopkins used the outpost's 60-foot-long (18 meter) robotic arm to pluck a Cygnus freighter capsule from orbit at 6:08 a.m. EST as the two ships sailed 264 miles over the Indian Ocean, northeast of Madagascar.
"A big sigh of relief for Orbital," said astronaut and NASA TV commentator Catherine "Cady" Coleman from Mission Control in Houston.
About two hours later, Hopkins latched the capsule, which is about the size of a small bus, to a docking port on the space station's Harmony module.
The capsule is loaded with 3,221 pounds (1,461 kg) of food, equipment, science experiments and supplies for the station, including computers and replacement parts for NASA's spacesuits.
Several commercial payloads also are aboard the Cygnus freighter, including a "CubeSat" launcher owned by Houston-based NanoRacks. CubeSats are 4-inch-sided, standardized, relatively inexpensive spacecraft. They produce their own power, transmit signals and are used for a variety of scientific purposes. Individual CubeSats can be configured to fly together.
The launcher will be operated from Japan's Kibo module, which includes a small airlock, robotic arm and external platform. The Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency already operates a similar CubeSat launcher.
The Cygnus capsule is scheduled to remain docked to the outpost for about 45 days, and will be unpacked, then refilled with trash and items no longer needed aboard the station.
Astronauts will then use the station's robot arm to remove the capsule and release it into orbit so it can drive itself into the atmosphere for incineration.
Orbital Sciences and privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, have NASA contracts worth a combined $3.5 billion for a total of 20 cargo flights to the space station, a $100 billion research complex owned by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.
Orbital Sciences made a successful test flight to the station in September. On Thursday, the Virginia-based company launched the first of eight paid missions for NASA. SpaceX meanwhile is preparing for its third cargo run on February 22.
NASA hired the companies following the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. The U.S. space agency also is managing a heated three-way competition between SpaceX, Boeing Co and privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp, to develop spaceships to fly astronauts.
NASA hopes to break the Russian government's monopoly on station crew taxi flights by 2017.
Rides on Russian Soyuz capsules currently cost the United States more than $60 million per person. The price will rise to more than $70 million in 2016.
NASA meanwhile is developing a heavy-lift rocket and capsule for future human missions into deep space, such as the moon and Mars beyond the station's orbit.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)