A SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule parachuted towards a splashdown on the target Wednesday night west of Tampa, returning more than two tons of experiment specimens from the International Space Station, including live rodents and a dozen bottles of French wine aged in space.
The commercial supply ship, flying on autopilot, rose from orbit and returned to the atmosphere over the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday evening. A sequence of parachutes deployed to slow the descent of the capsule to a relatively smooth speed for the landing west of Tampa, where a SpaceX salvage ship was waiting to pull the spacecraft out of the sea.
The return closed a 38-day mission for the Cargo Dragon, the first of a new design of SpaceX supply ships to service the International Space Station. The upgraded Cargo Dragon, or Dragon 2, replaces SpaceX’s fleet of first-generation Dragon Cargo Capsules, which last flew in early 2020.
SpaceX confirmed the success of the Cargo Dragon watering with a tweet. NASA and SpaceX have not provided any live coverage of the capsule’s return to Earth. A NASA WB-57 airborne imagery aircraft flew over the recovery area to capture images of the fiery reentry and splash of the Cargo Dragon.
NASA released a statement later Wednesday evening confirming the capsule splashed at 8:26 p.m. EST (0126 GMT).
The Cargo Dragon pulled away from the space station at 9:05 am EST (2:05 pm GMT) on Tuesday, a day later than expected. SpaceX and NASA officials have delayed the return home due to bad weather in the main Atlantic Ocean salvage area northeast of Daytona Beach.
The Dragon returned to Earth with 4,414 pounds, or 2,002 kilograms, of cargo, according to a NASA spokesperson.
The new Cargo Dragon capsules are derived from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which transports astronauts to and from the space station. The upgraded Cargo Dragon capsule, like the Crew Dragon, is designed to splash off the coast of Florida, closer to SpaceX’s Dragon retrofit facility at Space Force Station at Cape Canaveral.
The proximity to Cape Canaveral allows SpaceX to return urgent cargo to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in as little as four to nine hours. Previous Dragon cargo missions ended with splashing in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California, and it took days for the space station’s research specimens to be transferred to NASA.
The “Go Navigator” recovery vessel, made up of SpaceX technicians and engineers, was to hoist the capsule aboard its deck after the splash. The SpaceX team planned to unload critical science specimens and put them on a helicopter for an overnight flight to Kennedy Space Center.
The helicopter will arrive at Kennedy’s launch and landing facility, and the cargo will be transported to the nearby space station processing facility by truck, according to NASA.
Scientists will receive the specimens to begin their analyzes. After a quick peek inside the SSPF at Kennedy, some of the materials will be shipped to research teams in California, Texas, Massachusetts, Japan and other locations, NASA said.
The return of scientific specimens to Kennedy so quickly after returning to space is reminiscent of the Space Shuttle program, when missions brought goods directly to the Florida spaceport.
“I’m excited to finally see science coming back here because we can get these time-sensitive experiments in the lab faster than ever before,” Jennifer Wahlberg, Kennedy Space Center usage project manager, said in a statement. . “Sending science into space and then getting it back onto the track was definitely something back in the Shuttle era that we were really proud of, and being able to join that process is great.”
According to NASA, the experiments carried out aboard the Cargo Dragon included live mice that are part of the Rodent Research 23 investigation, which studies the function of the arteries, veins and lymphatic structures in the eye and changes in the retina. before and after space flight.
Scientists are looking to see if these changes affect eyesight. At least 40% of astronauts suffer from impaired vision during long duration space flights, according to NASA.
“Rodent Research-23 was designed to begin studying the gravimetric rehabilitation responses of rodents as quickly as possible, making it an ideal candidate for this flight,” said Jennifer Buchli, deputy chief scientist of the Station program. Space Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Also on board the Cargo Dragon: 12 bottles of Bordeaux and 320 vine cuttings.
The wine bottles spent more than a year on the space station after being launched onto a Northrop Grumman Cygnus supply ship in late 2019. Back on Earth, some of the bottles will be opened for exclusive tasting, while researchers a more scientific analysis will begin. of part of the wine to measure its aging after 14 months in microgravity.
Scientists will examine the branches of the vine – called canes – to assess how they have withstood 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 learn how plants have adapted to the stress of spaceflight.
Space Cargo Unlimited claims that grapes and vineyards are sensitive to climate change, and the results of the space station experiment could lead to lessons on how to grow grapes in harsher environments on Earth.
There was also a biomedical experiment conducted by researchers at Stanford University on how microgravity affects cardiovascular cells, and an experiment developed by Japanese scientists demonstrating the growth of 3D organ buds from cells. human strains 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 investigation examined whether these biofilms can corrode stainless steel and is evaluating the effectiveness of a silver-based disinfectant, in helping designers of future long-lasting space vehicles.
Materials for a fiber optic production technology demonstration also returned to the Cargo Dragon. Scientists and engineers will examine fiber optic materials made on the space station to see if they match predictions that fibers produced in space have “qualities far superior to those produced on Earth,” NASA says.
The upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft has more internal volume than SpaceX’s first-generation Dragon freighter, which completed its last mission to the space station in 2020. It also has double the motorized locking capacity of Dragon capsules. previous ones, and can support up to 12 of these racks for return to Earth, adding more capacity to bring back frozen and chilled samples.
“Using the previous Dragon spacecraft, it could take up to 48 hours from the time the capsule hits the water in the Pacific Ocean for it to return to Long Beach, California. We then started distributing those samples about four to five hours later, ”said Mary Walsh, manager of the use theft from Kennedy’s Research Integration Office. “Now we’re going to have the fast-back science in hand and hand it over to researchers just four to nine hours after the screening.”
“This ability to quickly retrieve science is so important to space biology, because we want to understand whether the effects we’re trying to measure in orbit are due to microgravity conditions or stress that a participant or sample might see. upon landing, ”said Kirt Costello, chief scientist for the NASA space station program. “So getting them back to Cape Town very quickly and handing them over to our scientists is a great new ability.”
Other changes introduced with the new Cargo Dragon spacecraft include the ability to dock and undock automatically at the station. The first generation Dragon freighters were attacked by the station’s robotic arm.
The Cargo Dragon’s pressurized compartment can be reused five times, according to SpaceX. The unpressurized chest is disposable, and a new one will fly with each Cargo Dragon mission.
Before dropping its brake rockets out of orbit, the Cargo Dragon jettisoned its trunk section to stay in space before atmospheric drag caused it to naturally reenter the atmosphere and burn. The capsule also closed a nose cone to cover its docking port before plunging back into the atmosphere.
The Cargo Dragon was 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 automated link to a new docking port located at the zenith, or upper side, of the Harmony module of the Research Outpost.
It delivered numerous experiments and a commercial airlock to the space station for Nanoracks, a Houston-based company that plans to use the addition to deploy small satellites, dispose of trash, and host research surveys.
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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