A SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule parachuted into a target on Wednesday night west of Tampa and returned more than two tons of experimental samples from the International Space Station, including live rodents and a dozen bottles of space-aged French wine.
The commercial supply ship flying on autopilot dropped out of orbit and went back into the atmosphere over the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night. A series of parachutes deployed to slow the capsule’s descent to a relatively gentle speed for spraying west of Tampa, where a SpaceX recovery vessel was on standby to pull the spacecraft from the ocean.
The return completed a 38-day mission for Cargo Dragon, the first in a new design of SpaceX supply ships serving the International Space Station. The upgraded Cargo Dragon, or Dragon 2, replaces SpaceX’s fleet of first generation Dragon cargo capsules, which flew for the last time in early 2020.
SpaceX confirmed the successful splashdown of Cargo Dragon with a tweet. NASA and SpaceX did not provide any direct coverage of the capsule’s return to Earth. A NASA WB-57 airborne imaging aircraft flew over the recovery zone to take pictures of Cargo Dragon’s burning re-entry and splashdown.
NASA issued a statement later Wednesday night confirming that the capsule sprayed down at. 20:26 EST (0126 GMT).
Cargo Dragon is disconnected from the space station at 9:05 AM EST (1405 GMT) Tuesday, one day later than planned. SpaceX and NASA executives delayed their return due to bad weather in the primary recovery zone of the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Daytona Beach.
The dragon returned to Earth with 4,414 pounds or 2,002 kg of cargo, according to a NASA spokesman.
The new Cargo Dragon capsules are derived from SpaceX’s human Crew Dragon spacecraft, which ferries astronauts to and from the space station. The upgraded Cargo Dragon capsule, like the Crew Dragon, is designed to spray down the coast of Florida closer to SpaceX’s Dragon renovation facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The closer proximity to Cape Canaveral allows SpaceX to return time-sensitive cargo to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in as little as four to nine hours. Earlier Dragon cargo missions ended with splashdowns in the Pacific off the coast of Baja California, and it took days before research specimens from space stations were transferred to NASA.
The recovery ship “Go Navigator”, manned by SpaceX technicians and engineers, was expected to hoist the capsule aboard its deck after the splashdown. The SpaceX team planned to 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.
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 back 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 that came home aboard the Cargo Dragon included live mice that are part of the Rodent Research 23 study, which studies the function of arteries, veins and lymph structures in the eye and changes in the retina before and after spaceflight, 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.
On board Cargo Dragon: Twelve bottles of Bordeaux wine and 320 cuttings of vines.
The wine bottles spent more than a year on the space station following the launch of a Northrop Grumman Cygnus supply ship in late 2019. Now back on Earth, some of the bottles will be opened for an exclusive tasting, while researchers will begin a more scientific analysis of some of the wine to measure how it aged after 14 months in microgravity.
Researchers will look at vines, called sugar cane, to assess how they weathered radiation and the environment with low gravity in orbit. One of the goals of the privately funded experiment, led by a Luxembourg start-up called Space Cargo Unlimited, is to learn how plants adapt to space stress.
Space Cargo Unlimited says that grapes and vineyards are susceptible to climate change, and results from the space station experiment could lead to lessons on how to grow grapes in harsher environments on earth.
There was 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 returned to Earth included a payload led by researchers at Texas State University seeking to identify bacterial genes used during biofilm growth. The study examined whether these biofilms can corrode stainless steel and evaluate 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 came 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 the 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.”
Other changes introduced with the new Cargo Dragon spacecraft include the ability to automatically dock and disconnect at the station. First generation Dragon cargo ships were fought by the station’s robotic arm.
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.
Before launching its brake rockets to fall out of orbit, Cargo Dragon left its trunk section to remain in space before atmospheric drag causes it to naturally return to the atmosphere and burn up. The capsule also closed a nose cone to cover its docking port before throwing itself back into the atmosphere.
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 coupling with a new docking port on the zenith or the top side of the research post’s Harmony module.
It provided the space station with several experiments and a commercial lock for Nanoracks, a Houston-based company that plans to use the add-on to insert small satellites, dispose of waste and host research studies.
The Cargo Dragon mission was SpaceX’s 21st refueling flight to the space station since 2012 under a multi-billion dollar contract with NASA.
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