After a two day chase through space, a commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule completed its orbital ballet and arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) today, Sept. 23, packed with some 2.5 tons of ground breaking science experiments and supplies for the human crew.
The Dragon CRS-4 resupply freighter rendezvoused with the station early this morning following a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings that brought the vessel to within a capture distance of some 10 meters (32 feet) beneath the massive orbiting outpost.
Expedition 41 crewmember and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst then maneuvered the station’s 58-foot Canadian built robotic arm. He deftly captured the Dragon at 6:52 a.m. EDT while working at the controls of the robotics workstation in the Cupola module and as the station soared some 260 miles above the Pacific Ocean.
NASA TV live coverage of the rendezvous and grappling process began at 5:00 a.m. EDT with berthing coverage concluding about 9:30 a.m. – http://www.nasa.gov/ntv
NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman assisted Gerst in operating the Canadarm2 from inside the domed, seven windowed Cupola.
Approximately two hours later at 9 a.m. EST, the private SpaceX Dragon was berthed at the Earth-facing port on the stations Harmony module.
See the Dragon’s location on ISS graphic below.
The SpaceX Dragon CRS-4 cargo mission thundered to space on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 1:52 a.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21, just hours after a deluge of widespread rain showers inundated central Florida. Story here.
CRS-4 marks the company’s fourth resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.
Eight more Dragon cargo missions to the ISS are slated through 2016.
The Dragon spacecraft is loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of science experiments, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing and supplies to the six person crews living and working aboard the ISS soaring in low Earth orbit under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.
This mission opens a new era in Earth science for the ISS. Tucked inside the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk section at the rear is the ISS-Rapid Scatterometer.
RapidScat is NASA’s first research payload aimed at conducting Earth science from the station’s exterior. The station’s robot arm will pluck RapidScat out of the trunk and attach it to an Earth-facing point on the exterior trusswork of ESA’s Columbus science module.
The remote sensing instrument will use radar pulses to observe the speed and direction of winds over the ocean for the improvement of weather forecasting.
Dragon also carries the first 3-D printer to space for the first such space based studies ever attempted by the astronaut crews. The printer will remain at the station for at least the next two years.
Also aboard are 20 mice housed in a special rodent habitat, as well as fruit flies.
Dragon will remain docked to the ISS for about a month. Then it will return to Earth via a parachute assisted Pacific Ocean landing off the coast of Baja California. On the return trip, the capsule will be packed with nearly 3,300 pounds (1,486 kg) of cargo, science samples, and computer and vehicle hardware for engineering checks.
The next SpaceX unmanned resupply mission is set to launch in early December on the CRS-5 flight.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.