Wrapping a 36-day mission to the International Space Station, a SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule plunged into the Gulf of Mexico Friday night with biomedical experiments, space travel equipment and other hardware returning from orbit.
The non-piloted spacecraft made a parachute-assisted splash into the Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, Florida, at 1 p.m. 23.29 EDT Friday (0329 GMT Saturday).
SpaceX confirmed the capsule’s splashdown in a tweet as recovery teams converged on the Dragon spacecraft in the Gulf of Mexico. SpaceX’s “Go Navigator” recovery ship was stationed near the splashdown zone to pull the capsule out of the sea.
Once the Dragon capsule is on the deck of the rescue ship, teams open the hatch and pick up time-sensitive research specimens for delivery by helicopter to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where scientists begin analyzing the experiments.
The recovery ship will bring the capsule back to Cape Canaveral for renovation and recycling on a future cargo mission.
The Cargo Dragon spacecraft is disconnected from the space station at 10:45 EDT (1445 GMT) Thursday two days later than originally planned. Leaders ordered the delay to wait for tropical storm Elsa to move away from Florida.
The non-piloted supply ship spent 33 days at the space station since docking there on June 5, two days after launching aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The mission was SpaceX’s 22nd return cargo to the space station since 2012. NASA has contracts with SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to fly commercial shipping missions to the station.
On the trip up to the space station, the Dragon capsule delivered more than 7,300 pounds (cargo), including experiments and upgraded solarrays. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet installed and unrolled solar panels on three spacewalks last month.
After unpacking the ship’s pressure cargo cabin, the station’s astronauts loaded about 2,400 kg of research specimens, experiments and other equipment to return to Earth, according to a NASA spokesman.
Experiments returned to Earth included a pharmaceutical study by Eli Lilly and Company that examined how gravity affects freeze-dried materials. On Earth, freeze-drying medicines for long-term storage result in layers with structural differences, and scientists want to know if samples that are freeze-dried in microgravity at the space station have a different structure.
The Dragon capsule also returned an experiment that assessed how gravity affects the structure, composition, and activity of oral bacteria. The data could help design treatments to combat oral diseases on long-term space missions to the moon and Mars, according to NASA.
Leah Cheshier, a NASA spokeswoman, said the Dragon capsule was also loaded with space travel equipment, including a pistol grip tool, torque wrench, cooler, water sampling kit and space drag components, such as gloves.
“I would like to thank all the SpaceX and NASA teams and all the scientists, engineers and scientists who have equipment on this vehicle,” Kimbrough said after the Dragon spacecraft left the station on Thursday. “It was a fantastic vehicle. It kept us busy for the last month doing a lot of good science. ”
The Dragon spacecraft placed its available trunk section at 6 p.m. 22.41 EDT Friday (0241 GMT Saturday). The pressureless trunk hosts the ship’s photovoltaic system.
The capsule then fired its Draco thrusters at 6 p.m. 22.45 EDT (0245 GMT) in a nine-minute deorbit combustion to slow the vessel’s speed enough to fall back into the atmosphere.
After throwing itself through the atmosphere with a heat shield to protect against scorching temperatures, the Dragon capsule extended its parachutes a few minutes before the splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.
This mission was SpaceX’s second refueling flight to use the company’s upgraded spacecraft Cargo Dragon, which is based on the design of the human rating crew’s Dragon spacecraft. The new version of the Dragon spacecraft is designed to be flown at least five times, up from three missions in the previous configuration.
It can also carry more cargo than the first generation of the Dragon spacecraft.
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