SpaceX’s first upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft left the International Space Station on Tuesday morning with more than 4,400 pounds of research specimens and other equipment heading for a splashdown Wednesday night in the Gulf of Mexico off the west coast of Florida.
Bad weather in the recovery zone prevented Cargo Dragon from disconnecting and returning to Earth on Monday.
Docking and splashdown mark the first return of a Cargo Dragon spacecraft near Florida, and it wraps up the first flight of SpaceX’s upgraded model of Dragon supply ships derived from the company’s human Crew Dragon vehicle.
The SpaceX recovery team will be on standby for the parachute-assisted spray around noon. 20:27 EST Wednesday (0227 GMT Thursday) in the Gulf of Mexico west of Tampa. The dragon returns to Earth with 4,414 pounds or 2,002 kilograms of cargo, according to a NASA spokesman.
The “Go Navigator” recovery ship, manned by SpaceX technicians and engineers, will hoist the capsule aboard its deck after the splashdown. The SpaceX team will unload time-critical scientific samples and put them on a helicopter for a flight to the Kennedy Space Center overnight.
The helicopter will arrive at Kennedy’s launch and landing facility, and the cargo will be transported to the nearby space station handling facility by truck, according to NASA.
Researchers who will receive the samples to begin their analyzes. After a quick look into the SSPF at Kennedy, some of the materials will be sent to research teams in California, Texas, Massachusetts, Japan and elsewhere, NASA said.
SpaceX’s first upgraded Cargo Dragon spaceship left the International Space Station on Tuesday morning with 4,400 pounds of research specimens and other equipment heading for splashdown Wednesday night in the Gulf of Mexico off the west coast of Florida. https://t.co/s6P0MTyNr1 pic.twitter.com/Vp4nZCEFjz
Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) January 12, 2021
The upgraded Cargo Dragons are targeting splashdowns near the Florida coast closer to research facilities at Kennedy and SpaceX’s Dragon renovation site at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Previous Dragon cargo flights ended with splashdowns in the Pacific off the coast of Baja California.
The return of scientific specimens to Kennedy so soon after their return to space harkens back to the space shuttle program when missions brought cargo directly to Florida spaceflight.
“I’m excited to finally see science return here again because we can get these time-sensitive experiments into the lab faster than ever,” Jennifer Wahlberg, Kennedy Space Center project manager, said in a statement. “Sending science up to space and then receiving it again on the runway was definitely something in the shuttle days that we were really proud of, and it’s great to be able to rejoin that process.”
Experiments coming home aboard Cargo Dragon Monday include live mice that are part of the Rodent Research 23 study studying the function of arteries, veins and lymph structures in the eye and changes in the retina before and after space travel, according to NASA.
Researchers are seeking insight into whether these changes affect vision. At least 40 percent of astronauts experience visual impairment during prolonged spaceflight, NASA says.
“Rodent Research-23 was designed to begin studying rodent adaptation responses as soon as possible, making it an ideal candidate for this flight,” said Jennifer Buchli, vice president of the International Space Station Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
There is also a biomedical experiment led by researchers at Stanford University looking at how microgravity affects cardiovascular cells, and an experiment developed by Japanese researchers demonstrating the growth of 3D organ buds from human stem cells in space.
Other experiments returning to Earth include a payload led by researchers at Texas State University seeking to identify bacterial genes used during biofilm growth. The study examines whether these biofilms can corrode stainless steel and assesses the effectiveness of a silver-based disinfectant to help designers of future long-lasting spacecraft.
Materials from a demonstration of fiber optic production technology also come home on Cargo Dragon. Scientists and engineers will examine the fiber-optic materials produced on the space station to see if they agree with predictions that fibers produced in space have “far better qualities than those produced on Earth,” NASA said.
The upgraded spacecraft Cargo Dragon has more internal volume than SpaceX’s first generation Dragon cargo ship, which completed its last mission to the space station in 2020. It also has twice as much locked capacity as previous Dragon capsules and can support up to 12 such cabinets for return to the ground, increasing the capacity to bring back frozen and refrigerated samples.
Using the former Dragon spacecraft, it can take up to 48 hours from the time the capsule hits the waters of the Pacific Ocean before returning to Long Beach, California. Then we started distributing these samples about four to five hours after that, ”said Mary Walsh, Kennedy’s Office of Research Integration. “Now we must have early to return science in hand and hand it over to scientists only four to nine hours after the splashdown.”
“This ability to quickly get science back is so important for space biology because we want to understand whether the effects we are trying to measure on orbit are due to the state of microgravity or due to the stress that a participant or a sample can see by landing, ”said Kirt Costello, NASA’s chief scientist for the space station program. “Getting them back to the Cape quickly and handing them over to our researchers is a fantastic new ability.”
Before Cargo Dragon re-enters, the automated cargo capsule is disconnected from the space station at 09.05 EST (1405 GMT) Tuesday. The new Dragon design can automatically dock to and from the station while the first generation of Dragon cargo ships were fought by the station’s robotic arm.
Cargo Dragon launched on December 6 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. The capsule arrived at the space station the next day with an automatic interconnection with a new docking port on the zenith or the top side of the research post’s Harmony module.
Cargo Dragon joined SpaceX’s Crew Dragon “Resilience” spacecraft, which was located at the space station, the first time two SpaceX vehicles have been in that orbital laboratory at the same time.
Astronauts opened hatches for Cargo Dragon to begin unpacking more than 6,000 pounds of provisions and experiments, including a holiday party for the station’s seven-person crew.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon “Resilience” capsule arrived at the station on November 16 with astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi. The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft is docked to the front end of the Harmony module.
Hopkins and his crew joined NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov on the space station, giving the research complex a long-standing crew of seven for the first time.
The Cargo Dragon mission – SpaceX’s 21st refueling flight to the space station under contract with NASA since 2012 – supplied spare parts and consumables for the research laboratory’s new female-friendly toilet, live rodents and support hardware for biological experiments and an upgraded catalytic reactor for water treatment system.
The cargo mission also conducted an experiment called BioAsteroid to look at how microbes can help extract material on asteroids, and a study to help scientists learn more about how space travel affects cardiovascular cells and human brain organs, providing insight into , how microgravity affects the survival and metabolism of brain cells.
The capsule’s external cargo hold led a new commercial airlock to the space station for Nanoracks, a Houston-based company that plans to use the new facility to host experiments, dispose of waste and deploy small satellites.
Cargo Dragon’s pressure chamber can be reused five times according to SpaceX. The pressureless trunk is disposable, and a new one flies on each Cargo Dragon mission.
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