aerospace astronomy Commercial Cargo Dragon falcon 9 iss spacex

Falcon 9 launches cargo Dragon mission to ISS

CRS-22 separation

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched a cargo Dragon spacecraft June 3, carrying experiments and a new set of solar panels for the International Space Station.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 1:29 p.m. Eastern. The Dragon separated from the rocket’s super stage 12 minutes after liftoff.

The Dragon, flying a mission designated CRS-22 or SpX-22, is scheduled to dock with the ISS at about 5 a.m. Eastern June 5. This is the second flight of the new version of the cargo Dragon, which is similar to the design used for Crew Dragon missions but lacks the crewed version’s SuperDraco abort thrusters.

The Dragon is carrying 1,948 kilograms of pressurized cargo inside of the spacecraft, and an additional 1,380 kilograms of unpressurized cargo stored in its trunk section. It will return to Earth in July carrying about 2,400 kilograms of experiments and equipment.

The largest item the Dragon is transporting to the station is a pair of new solar arrays called the ISS Roll-out Solar Array (iROSA), developed by Redwire for ISS prime contractor Boeing. The arrays are stored in the Dragon’s trunk rolled up, and will be attached to the station’s truss and rolled out. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet are currently scheduled to conduct spacewalks on June 16 and 20 to install those arrays.

The arrays are the first two of six that will be installed on the station, overlaying part of the existing arrays. The higher efficiency of the new arrays means that, even by shadowing the existing arrays, they will still generate more power for the station.

“The new solar arrays bring us back to a power generation that was the same as we had when we launched the older solar arrays,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, during a June 2 briefing. “It allows us to continue the science and research programs we have on board.” He said that the new arrays will also provide enough power to support a commercial module being developed by Axiom Space that will be added to the station as soon as 2024.

The key technology for the iROSA arrays was tested on the ISS in 2017 as a tech demo, noted Jennifer Buchli, deputy chief scientist for the ISS program at NASA, at the briefing. Technology demonstrations being brought to the station on this Dragon include a portable ultrasound device for medical care and a European Space Agency experiment to test the use of virtual reality for operating robotic arms and spacecraft.

This Dragon is also carrying experiments such as gene studies of tardigrades, also known as “water bears,” microscopic creatures able to survive extreme environments, as well as studying ways to grow cotton that uses less water.

This launch was the first flight of a new booster, which made a successful droneship landing in the Atlantic Ocean. This was the first SpaceX launch to use a new booster since November 2020. “We’re actually surprised when we get to a mission like today’s where we’re flying a new booster,” said Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, at the preflight briefing.

Despite flying a new booster, SpaceX did not conduct a static-fire test of the stage at the launch pad prior to this launch. Walker said that SpaceX has been moving away from doing such tests before every launch, something it had done for years, as it gains experience with the Falcon 9. The stage, she added, did perform a static-fire test at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, test site before being shipped to Florida.

“SpaceX and NASA worked together to determine that an additional static fire at the pad wasn’t necessary this mission,” she said. “We certainly make sure that we do all the necessary tests to make sure that the vehicle is ready for its journey.”

At neighboring Space Launch Complex 40, SpaceX did perform a static-fire test of another Falcon 9 first stage in the early morning hours of June 3. That rocket is scheduled to launch the SXM-8 satellite for SiriusXM Satellite Radio June 6.


aerospace astronomy Commercial Cargo Dragon iss spacex

Next-generation Dragon cargo spacecraft returns from space station

CRS-21 Dragon undocking

WASHINGTON — The first in SpaceX’s new generation of Dragon cargo spacecraft completed its mission with a splashdown off the Florida coast Jan. 13.

The CRS-21 Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico west of Tampa at 8:26 p.m. Eastern. It had undocked from the station a day and a half earlier after original plans for an undocking and splashdown Jan. 11 were postponed by poor weather.

The Dragon brought back to Earth about 2,000 kilograms of research payloads and other cargo from the station. The spacecraft, launched Dec. 6, brought nearly 3,000 kilograms of cargo to the station, including the Bishop commercial airlock developed by Nanoracks.

The CRS-21 mission was the first to use the new version of the Dragon cargo spacecraft, based on the vehicle SpaceX developed for the commercial crew program. It includes additional cargo volume and on-orbit lifetime, and can dock and undock autonomously, rather than be berthed by the station’s robotic arm.

The new cargo Dragons also splash down off the Florida coast. Original cargo Dragon missions splashed down in the Pacific, southwest of California, and could take a day or more to return to port. On the CRS-21 mission, time-sensitive cargo from the Dragon was transported by helicopter to a lab at the Kennedy Space Center within six hours.

The Dragon is the second cargo spacecraft to depart the station in as many weeks. Northrop Grumman’s NG-14 Cygnus spacecraft left the station Jan. 6, three months after its arrival. That spacecraft remains in orbit performing experiments, including one testing combustion in weightlessness, and will reenter Jan. 26.

“We’ve really hit our stride. This is our new normal,” Robyn Gatens, acting ISS director at NASA Headquarters, said at a Jan. 13 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee. “Lots of vehicles coming and going, lots of activity on the station.”

The seven-person crew currently on the station, including four NASA astronauts, is enabling what she called “significant more crew time for what can be dedicated to utilization,” or research activities there. She noted that had long been the goal of the commercial crew program, which enables the station to support seven people rather than the six it could traditionally accommodate when the only means to travel there was via Russia’s three-person Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA has not yet set an end date for the Crew-1 commercial crew mission currently docked there. Gatens said it’s likely to end some time in May, about six months after its launch. It will overlap with the next Crew Dragon mission, Crew-2, whose launch is no earlier than March 30.

That date may slip, though, to accommodate the second uncrewed test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. That’s scheduled to launch March 29, although Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, said at the same committee meeting that the Starliner launch could move up a few days to March 25.

The CRS-21 Dragon brought back to Earth a variety of scientific experiments, ranging from heart tissue cells tested on the station to fiber optic cables produced in microgravity. It also brought back a very different commercial payload: 12 bottles of red wine flown to the station in late 2019 by European company Space Cargo Unlimited. The wine, along with 320 snippets of grape vines also flown on the station, will be shipped to a facility in Bordeaux, France, to see how they were affected by their time in space. That will include what the company called a “private, organoleptic wine tasting” to compare the wine flown in space to wine that remained on Earth.


aerospace astronomy Commercial Cargo Dragon falcon 9 iss nasa spacex

SpaceX launches first next-generation cargo Dragon spacecraft to ISS

Dragon separation

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched the first of a new generation of Dragon cargo spacecraft Dec. 6, carrying experiments and supplies to the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex (LC) 39A at 11:17 a.m. Eastern after a one-day delay caused by weather. It deployed the Dragon cargo spacecraft nearly 12 minutes after liftoff. The rocket’s first stage, previously used for the Demo-2 commercial crew mission in May then for launches of the ANASIS-2 satellite and a set of Starlink satellites, landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Dragon, flying a mission designated CRS-21, is carrying 2,972 kilograms of cargo, both within the spacecraft itself and in its external trunk. It is scheduled to dock autonomously with the zenith port of the space station’s Harmony module at 1:30 p.m. Eastern Dec. 7.

CRS-21 is the first mission in SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract, which uses a version of the Crew Dragon spacecraft developed for the commercial crew program. “What you see on the outside, the exterior, is the same outer mold line” between the crew and cargo versions, said Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, at a Dec. 4 prelaunch briefing. The biggest difference, she noted, is the lack of SuperDraco abort thrusters on the cargo version.

The interior is redesigned to accommodate cargo, with about 20% more volume than the first-generation cargo Dragon. The spacecraft can host eight powered lockers for research payloads at launch and 12 for its return to Earth, compared to six such lockers on both launch and return for the earlier Dragon version. Dragon can support more lockers for return than at launch since it can use additional power that, at launch, is needed for external payloads.

Walker noted that the new Dragon can stay at the ISS for up to 75 days, twice as long as the original version, although for this mission it will be docked to the station for about 35 days. The spacecraft, which can dock directly with the station rather than being berthed by the station’s robotic arm, is designed to be used at least five times.

While original cargo Dragon missions launched from both LC-39A as well as nearby Space Launch Complex 40, Walker said SpaceX plans to use LC-39A for cargo Dragon missions in the future, taking advantage of the crew access arm there for loading time-sensitive cargo. “That is a huge advantage for us to be able to perform late-load cargo while the vehicle is already vertical,” she said. “It allows us to do it even closer to T-0.”

Like Crew Dragon, the new cargo Dragon will splash down just off the Florida coast, rather than in the Pacific hundreds of kilometers from California as the first-generation Dragon cargo spacecraft. That will enable some research payloads to be handed over to scientists as soon as four hours after splashdown. “It’s a really critical capability for biological payloads,” said Kirt Costello, chief scientist for the ISS program office at NASA, at the prelaunch briefing.

This Dragon is carrying a wide range of biological and other research payloads for the station. The experiments include studies of the effects of spaceflight on heart and brain cells, testing of an off-the-shelf blood analysis device, and a “biomining” experiment that will examine how microbes could be used to extract resources from asteroids.

The largest payload on the spacecraft is the Bishop airlock for Nanoracks. The company built the airlock as a commercial facility for use deploying satellites and hosting external payloads. The station’s robotic arm will remove Bishop from Dragon’s trunk shortly after docking and install it on the Tranquility, or Node 3, module of the station.

Nanoracks decided to develop Bishop to get around a bottleneck in satellite deployments using an airlock in the Japanese Kibo module, but the potential applications of the airlock have grown over time. “We tried to make the airlock design flexible so that it can be used in a variety of different ways down the road,” said Brock Howe, program manager for Bishop at Nanoracks, during a November briefing about the mission that included several scientists also flying experiments on the Dragon. “Hopefully, the airlock will be able to provide them with capabilities that will enable them to be very creative going forward.”

“This is a monumental moment for Nanoracks,” Jeff Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks, said in a statement after launch. “We came up with this idea five years ago. In those five quick years, we’ve gone from being known as the ‘CubeSat’ deployment company to an organization that is building the future of commercial low Earth orbit infrastructure.”

The Dragon is also carrying several hundred kilograms of crew supplies, which includes some special items for the upcoming holidays, such as “some Christmas-y food,” said Kenny Todd, NASA ISS deputy program manager, at the prelaunch briefing. He declined, though, to say if there were any gifts on board. “I don’t like to get out in front of Santa Claus.”