SpaceX Dragon Splashes Down in Pacific with Treasure Trove of Space Station Science

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-10 spacecraft is pictured seconds before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on Mar. 19, 2017 after departing the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX’s tenth contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station came to a safe conclusion with a splashdown of the Dragon spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean Sunday and successfully returned a treasure trove of more than two tons of precious science experiments and research samples from the space station.

Researchers on Earth are eagerly awaiting the science data and samples in order to carry out high powered laboratory analysis that will eventually yield the fruits of the hard won labor – years in the making.

The Dragon CRS-10 cargo freighter departed the International Space Station (ISS) Sunday morning after Expedition 50 astronauts Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) and Shane Kimbrough of NASA released the spacecraft from the grip of the station’s 57.7-foot-long(17.6-meter) Canadian-built Canadarm2 robotic arm as planned at 5:11 a.m. EDT, March 19.

After carefully maneuvering away from the orbiting outpost and six person international crew at an altitude of appox. 250 miles (400 km), Dragon eased away to a safe distance.

SpaceX’s Dragon CRS-10 cargo vehicle is attached to the International Space Station on Feb 23, 2017 after early morning capture by astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet using the robotic arm and subsequent berthing at Earth facing port on the Harmony module. It will stay for a month. Credit: NASA

The vessel then fired its braking thrusters a few hours later to initiate the reentry burn that would set the craft on course for a fiery plummet through the Earth’s atmosphere.

Some five and a half hours later the spaceship carried out a parachute assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 10:46 a.m. EDT, about 200 miles southwest of Long Beach, California.

The highest priority research and technology cargo will be removed from Dragon immediately and returned to NASA.

SpaceX CRS-10 Dragon supply ship launched on Feb. 19, 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida successfully arrives at the International Space Station on Feb. 23, 2017 for capture and berthing at station port on the Harmony module. Credit: NASA

The rest will travel back to port and be prepared for a return trip to SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas, where the remaining scientific samples, research experiments and technology gear and hardware will be unloaded for NASA.

Dragon had spent nearly a month berthed at the Earth-facing port on the station’s Harmony module, since arriving on Feb 23.

Dragon begun its space voyage after it was launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Sunday, Feb. 19 on the first Falcon 9 rocket ever to blast off from historic launch pad 39A in a blaze of glory – as I reported here.

Historic maiden blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center) at 9:38 a.m. EDT on Feb 19, 2017, on Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

At liftoff, the Dragon CRS-10 space freighter was carrying more than 5500 pounds of equipment, gear, food, crew supplies, hardware and NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol Gas Experiment III (SAGE III) ozone mapping science payload to the low Earth orbiting station in support of the Expedition 50 and 51 crew members.

After a four day chase, Dragon was captured and attached to the station using the Canadian arm on Feb 23 by the same two astronauts who released it on Sunday.

The research supplies and equipment brought up by Dragon will support over 250 scientific investigations to advance knowledge about the medical, psychological and biomedical challenges astronauts face during long-duration spaceflight.

SAGE III will measure stratospheric ozone, aerosols, and other trace gases by locking onto the sun or moon and scanning a thin profile of the atmosphere. It is one of NASA’s longest running earth science programs.

The LIS lightning mapper will measure the amount, rate and energy of lightning as it strikes around the world from the altitude of the ISS as it orbits Earth. Its data will complement that from the recently orbited GLM lighting mapper lofted to geosynchronous aboard the NASA/NOAA GOES-R spacecraft instrument.

NASA’s RAVEN experiment will test autonomous docking technologies for spacecraft.

SAGE III and RAVEN were stowed in the Dragon’s unpressurized truck. Astronauts plucked them out of the trunk using the robotic arm and attached them to specified locations on the stations exterior to carry out their objectives.

For the return trip to Earth, the astronaut crew loaded Dragon with more than 5,400 pounds of NASA cargo, and science and technology demonstration samples gathered and collected by the stations crewmembers.

“A variety of technological and biological studies are returning in Dragon. The Microgravity Expanded Stem Cells investigation had crew members observe cell growth and other characteristics in microgravity,” said NASA.

“This information will provide insight into how human cancers start and spread, which aids in the development of prevention and treatment plans. Results from this investigation could lead to the treatment of disease and injury in space, as well as provide a way to improve stem cell production for human therapy on Earth.”

“Samples from the Tissue Regeneration-Bone Defect study, a U.S. National Laboratory investigation sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, studied what prevents vertebrates such as rodents and humans from re-growing lost bone and tissue, and how microgravity conditions affect the process. Results will provide a new understanding of the biological reasons behind a human’s inability to grow a lost limb at the wound site, and could lead to new treatment options for the more than 30 percent of the patient population who do not respond to current options for chronic non-healing wounds.”

Dragon departed in order to make way for the arrival of the next cargo ship.

The ‘SS John Glenn’ Cygnus cargo freighter built by Orbital Sciences is due to lift off no earlier than March 27 on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named for Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts, stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida behind a sign commemorating Glenn on March 9, 2017. Launch slated for March 21 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch and mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

New Exoplanet-Hunting Mission to launch in 2017

Move over Kepler. NASA has recently green-lighted two new missions as part of its Astrophysics Explorer Program.

These come as the result of four proposals submitted in 2012. The most anticipated and high profile mission is TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

Slated for launch in 2017, TESS will search for exoplanets via the transit method, looking for faint tell-tale dips in brightness as the unseen planet passes in front of its host star. This is the same method currently employed by Kepler, launched in 2009. Unlike Kepler, which stares continuously at a single segment of the sky along the galactic plane in the direction of the constellations Cygnus, Hercules, and Lyra, TESS will be the first dedicated all-sky exoplanet hunting satellite.

The mission will be a partnership of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, Orbital Sciences Corporation, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI).

TESS will launch onboard an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket released from the fuselage of a Lockheed L-1011 aircraft, the same system that deployed IBEX in 2008 & NuSTAR in 2012. NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) will also launch using a Pegasus XL rocket this summer in June.

An Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket attached to the fuselage of an L1011 for the launch of IBEX. (Credit: NASA).
An Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket attached to the fuselage of an L1011 for the launch of IBEX. (Credit: NASA).

“TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission. It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth,” said George Riker, a senior researcher from MKI.

TESS will utilize four wide angle telescopes to get the job done. The effective size of the detectors onboard is 192 megapixels. TESS is slated for a two year mission. Unlike Kepler, which sits in an Earth-trailing heliocentric  orbit, TESS will be in an elliptical path in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

TESS will examine approximately 2 million stars brighter than 12th magnitude including 1,000 of the nearest red dwarfs. Not only will TESS expand the growing catalog of exoplanets, but it is also expected to find planets with longer orbital periods.

One dilemma with the transit method is that it favors the discovery of planets with short orbital periods, which are much more likely to be seen transiting their host star from a given vantage point in space.

TESS will also serve as a logical progression from Kepler to later proposed exoplanet search platforms. TESS will also discover candidates for further scrutiny by as the James Webb Space Telescope to be launched in 2018 and the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrometer based at La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Artist's conception of NICER on the exterior of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA).
Artist’s conception of NICER on the exterior of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA).

Also on the board for launch in 2017 is NICER, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer to be placed on the exterior of the International Space Station. NICER will employ an array 56 telescopes which will collect and study X-rays from neutron stars. NICER will specialize in the study of a particular sub-class of neutron star known as millisecond pulsars. The X-ray telescopes are in a configuration utilizing a set of nested glass shells looking like the layers of an onion.

Observing pulsars in the X-ray range of the spectrum will offer scientists tremendous insight into their inner workings and structure. The International Space Station offers a unique vantage point to do this sort of science. Like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02), the power requirements of NICER dictate that it cannot be a free-flying satellite. X-Ray astronomy must also be done above the hindering effects of the Earth’s atmosphere.

NICER will be deployed as an exterior payload aboard an ISS ExPRESS Logistics Carrier. These are unpressurized platforms used for experiments that must be directly exposed to space.

Another fascinating project working in tandem with NICER is SEXTANT, the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing And Navigation Technology. This project seeks to test the precision of millisecond pulsars for interplanetary navigation.

“They (pulsars) are extremely reliable celestial clocks and can provide high-precision timing just like the atomic signals supplied through the 26-satellite military operated Global Positioning System (GPS),” said NASA Goddard scientist Zaven Arzoumanian. The chief difficulty with relying on this system for interplanetary journeys is that the signal gets progressively weaker the farther you travel from the Earth.

“Pulsars, on the other hand, are accessible in virtually every conceivable flight regime, from LEO to interplanetary and deepest space,” said NICER/SEXTANT principle investigator Keith Gendreau.

Both NICER and TESS follow the long legacy of NASA’s Astrophysics Explorer Program, which can be traced all the way back to the launch Explorer 1. This was the very first U.S. satellite launched in 1958. Explorer 1 discovered the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth.

(from left) William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hold aloft a mock up of Explorer 1 shortly after launch. (Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech.
(From left) William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hold aloft a mock up of Explorer 1 shortly after launch. (Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech).

“The Explorer Program has a long and stellar history of deploying truly innovative missions to study some of the most exciting questions in space science,” stated NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld. “With these missions, we will learn about the most extreme states of matter by studying neutron stars and we will identify many nearby star systems with rocky planets in the habitable zones for further study by telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope.”

Of course, Grunsfeld is referring to planets orbiting red dwarf stars, which will be targeted by TESS. These are expected have a habitable zone much closer to their primary star than our own Sun. It has even been suggested by MIT scientists that the first exoplanets visited by humans on some far off date might be initially discovered by TESS. The spacecraft may also discover future targets for follow up spectroscopic analysis, the best chance of discovering alien life on an exoplanet in the next 50 years. One can imagine the excitement that a positive detection of a chemical exclusive to life as we know it such as chlorophyll in the spectra of a far of world would generate. More ominously, detection of such synthetic elements as plutonium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet might suggest we found them… but alas, too late.

But on a happier note, it’ll be exciting times for space exploration to see both projects get underway. Perhaps human explorers will indeed one day visit the worlds discovered by TESS… and use navigation techniques pioneered by SEXTANT to do it!