SpaceX’s spaceship Cargo Dragon leaves the International Space Station on Tuesday. Photo credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now
A SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule that was parachuted onto a target west of Tampa on Wednesday evening, bringing back more than two tons of experimental specimens from the International Space Station, including live rodents and a dozen bottles of space-age French wine.
The commercial supply ship, flying on an autopilot, left orbit and re-entered the atmosphere over the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday evening. A series of parachutes deployed to slow the capsule’s descent to a relatively gentle speed so it could hose down west of Tampa, where a SpaceX salvage ship was ready to pull the spacecraft out of the sea.
The return completed a 38-day mission for the cargo kite, the first in a new design of SpaceX supply ships serving the International Space Station. The upgraded Cargo Dragon or Dragon 2 replaces the SpaceX fleet of first-generation Dragon cargo pods that last flew in early 2020.
SpaceX confirmed the Cargo Dragon’s successful splashdown with a tweet. NASA and SpaceX did not provide live coverage of the capsule’s return to Earth. A NASA WB-57 imaging aircraft flew over the recovery zone to capture images of the fiery re-entry and splash of the cargo kite.
NASA issued a statement later Wednesday night confirming that the capsule hosed down at 8:26 p.m. EST (0126 GMT).
The cargo kite was undocked from the space station at 9:05 a.m. EST (1405 GMT) Tuesday, a day later than planned. SpaceX and NASA executives delayed homecoming due to bad weather in the primary Atlantic recreation zone northeast of Daytona Beach.
According to a NASA spokesman, the kite returned to Earth with 2,442 pounds, or 2,002 kilograms of cargo.
The new Cargo Dragon capsules come from SpaceX’s human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft, which carries astronauts to and from the space station. The upgraded Cargo Dragon capsule, like the Crew Dragon, is designed to spray off the Florida coast, closer to SpaceX’s Dragon remediation facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
With its close proximity to Cape Canaveral, SpaceX can return time-sensitive cargo to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in just four to nine hours. Previous Dragon cargo missions ended up splashing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, and it took days for research samples to be transferred from space stations to NASA.
The rescue ship “Go Navigator”, manned by SpaceX technicians and engineers, was expected to lift the capsule on board its deck after it had been hosed down. The SpaceX team planned to unload time-sensitive scientific samples and put them in a helicopter for an overnight flight to the Kennedy Space Center.
The helicopter will arrive at Kennedy’s takeoff and landing facility, and the cargo will be trucked to the nearby space station processing facility, according to NASA.
This is where the scientists receive the samples to begin their analyzes. After a quick look at the SSPF in Kennedy, some of the materials will be delivered to research teams in California, Texas, Massachusetts, Japan and other locations, NASA said.
The return of science copies to Kennedy so quickly after their return to space dates back to the space shuttle program when missions brought cargo directly to the Florida spaceport.
“I’m excited to have science finally come back here as we can get these time-sensitive experiments into the lab faster than ever,” said Jennifer Wahlberg, project manager for the use of the Kennedy Space Center, in a statement. “Sending science into space and then getting 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 get back into the process.”
Experiments that came home aboard the Cargo Dragon included live mice, which are part of the Rodent Research 23 investigation, which NASA says the function of arteries, veins, and lymphatic structures in the eye, as well as changes in the retina before and after space travel examined.
Scientists are looking to find out whether these changes affect vision. According to NASA, at least 40 percent of astronauts suffer from impaired vision on long-term flights.
“Rodent Research-23 was designed to study rodent gravity responses as quickly as possible, making it an ideal candidate for this flight,” said Jennifer Buchli, assistant chief scientist for the International Space Station program at the Johnson Space Center NASA in Houston.
Also on board the Cargo Dragon: twelve bottles of Bordeaux wine and 320 cuttings of grapevines.
The wine bottles spent more than a year on the space station after being launched on a Northrop Grumman Cygnus supply ship in late 2019. Now 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 has aged after 14 months in weightlessness.
The scientists will examine the grapevine branches – called sticks – to see how they survived the radiation and the low-gravity environment in orbit. One of the goals of the privately funded experiment, led by a Luxembourg startup called Space Cargo Unlimited, is to find out how plants have adapted to the stresses of space travel.
Grapes and wineries are vulnerable to climate change, according to Space Cargo Unlimited, and the results of the space station experiment could lead to lessons on growing grapes in harsher environments on Earth.
There was also a biomedical experiment conducted by Stanford University researchers to study how microgravity affects cardiovascular cells and an experiment developed by Japanese scientists that investigated the growth of 3D organ buds from human stem cells in the Space demonstrated.
NASA’s patch for the SpaceX space station’s 21st replenishment mission. Photo credit: NASA
Other experiments that returned to Earth included a payload led by researchers from Texas State University to identify bacterial genes used during biofilm growth. The research looked at whether these biofilms could attack stainless steel and assessed the effectiveness of a silver-based disinfectant to aid designers of future long-term spacecraft.
Materials from a demonstration of fiber optic production technology also came home on the Cargo Dragon. Scientists and engineers will examine the fiberglass materials made on the space station to see if they match predictions that fibers made in space “have far better properties than those made on Earth,” says NASA.
The upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft has more internal volume than SpaceX’s first generation Dragon cargo ship, which completed its final mission to the space station in 2020. It also has twice the locking capacity than previous Dragon capsules and can support up to 12 such capsules. Return to Earth lockers, increasing the capacity to return frozen and chilled samples.
“With the previous Dragon spaceship, it can take up to 48 hours for the capsule in the Pacific to meet the water in the Pacific and be back in Long Beach, California. We started distributing these samples about four to five hours later, ”said Mary Walsh, flight director for the Kennedy Research Integration Office. “Now we have the science of early return in hand and we turn it over to researchers just four to nine hours after hosing down.”
“This ability to get science back quickly is so important to space biology because we want to understand whether the impact we are trying to measure on orbit is due to the state of zero gravity or the stress a participant or sample may experience looks at landing, ”said Kirt Costello, chief scientist of NASA’s space station program. “So it’s a great new ability to get these back to the Cape really quickly and hand them over to our scientists.”
Other changes introduced with the new Cargo Dragon spaceship include the ability to automatically dock and undock at the station. The first-generation Dragon cargo carriers were packed by the station’s robotic arm.
The pressurized compartment of the cargo kite can be reused five times, according to SpaceX. The pressureless trunk is disposable and a new one flies on every Cargo Dragon mission.
Before the Cargo Dragon fired its brake rockets to fall out of orbit, it dumped its trunk to stay in space before drag caused it to naturally re-enter the atmosphere and burn. The capsule also closed a nose cone to cover its docking opening before re-entering the atmosphere.
The Cargo Dragon launched on December 6th from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket. The capsule reached the space station the next day with an automated connection to a new docking port on the zenith or top of the research outpost’s Harmony module.
It provided the space station with numerous experiments and a commercial airlock for nanoracks, a Houston-based company that plans to use the additive to deploy small satellites, dispose of trash, and conduct research.
The Cargo Dragon mission was SpaceX’s 21st supply flight to the space station since 2012 under a multi-billion dollar contract with NASA.
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