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After weeks of delays, the six astronauts on the International Space Station received a bounty of ants, fresh fruit, equipment, and their Christmas presents on the first official resupply launch by a private company. The operation to reel in the Cygnus capsule, which was launched from Virginia on Thursday, involved two spacecraft traveling together at 17,500 miles-per-hour, the use of a massive robotic arm to grab the capsule, and joint coordination efforts from Virginia, Texas, and Japan. 

Perhaps most noteworthy, beyond the reception of overdue gifts, was that this was the first private resupply mission of its kind: "NASA is relying on private industry to keep the orbiting lab well stocked in this post-shuttle era and, in four more years, possibly supply rides for U.S. astronauts as well."

The Cygnus, sent by Orbital Sciences Corp., had been slated to arrive in time for Christmas, but the launch was pushed back for a number of very impressive-seeming reasons. First, NASA had repair the cooling system on one of its orbiting outposts. Then the launch was pushed back because of cold weather and, finally, it was delayed again because of an intense solar storm. The solar storm, which unearthed fears of potentially damaging "space weather radiation," an ominous-sounding X-class flare, which looked something like this:

Now that Cygnus has fulfilled its duty, it will be filled with trash and sent to its fiery death over the Pacific Ocean. If you see the remains of a bad Christmas sweater in the ether next month, now you'll know why. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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