Aside from cargo delivery, the Cygnus space vehicles have learned a new trick and can now boost the ISS to help raise its orbit.

The Cygnus cargo spacecraft that flew to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 21 with supplies and science equipment for the astronauts of Expedition 55-56 hast just left the orbiting laboratory for its return trip to Earth.

The spacecraft undocked from the ISS at 8:35 a.m. EDT (12:35 GMT) on July 15 and will be heading back home at the end of the month, reports Space.com.

Cygnus was released from the space station with the help of the Canadarm2 robotic arm, which unberthed the vehicle from the Unity Module where it was parked.

Operated by European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst and NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, the robot moved Cygnus to a safe distance from the ISS and then released it into Low Earth Orbit.

“At the time of release, the station was flying 253 miles above the Southeastern border of Colombia,” NASA stated earlier today.

Built by Orbital ATK, now part of Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, Cygnus arrived at the ISS on May 24, with a 7,385-pound cargo (3,350 kilograms) of science experiments, crew supplies, and vehicle hardware, as reported by the Inquisitr.

For its round trip to Earth, the astronauts have loaded Cygnus up with “thousands of pounds of trash,” which will be disposed of when the spacecraft burns up in our planet’s atmosphere upon arrival.

Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon cargo pods, which are built to touch down back on Earth after ferrying supplies to the ISS, the Cygnus spacecraft is non-reusable, meaning it gets destroyed at the end of each mission.

This particular Cygnus vehicle, identified as Cygnus OA-9 — or “S.S. J.R. Thompson,” in honor of James Robert “J.R.” Thompson, the late NASA director and Orbital ATK executive — will be ending its mission on July 30.

“Cygnus is scheduled to deorbit with thousands of pounds of trash on Monday, July 30, as it burns up harmlessly over the Pacific Ocean while entering Earth’s atmosphere,” NASA officials stated in a news release.

Since the cargo ship will get torn apart over the Pacific, any falling debris from pieces that could survive the deorbit are bound to land in the ocean, without causing any harm to populated areas, notes Space.com.

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But before the mission is over, Cygnus OA-9 has one more thing to do.

“Following its release, Cygnus will deploy a series of NanoRacks customer CubeSats. The cargo craft will then remain in orbit for an additional two weeks to allow the Cygnus flight control team to conduct engineering tests,” revealed NASA.

Another interesting announcement was made by Northrop Grumman’s Frank DeMauro, who told Space.com that Cygnus now has a new skill that the reusable Dragon cargo ships don’t possess.

The Northrop Grumman spacecraft is now able to help the space station raise its orbit when it decays due to aerodynamic drag experienced in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

This new capability was successfully tested on July 11 and enabled Cygnus to push the ISS back up with its thrusters and raise its orbit by 282 feet (86 meters).

“The burn went extremely well,” said DeMauro, who is vice president of the company’s advanced programs division overseeing the Cygnus missions. “The spacecraft behaved exactly as we expected.”

In the future, visiting Cygnus spacecraft could employ the same procedure to lower the orbit of the ISS and even deorbit the space station when the time comes for it to be retired.

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