SpaceX Dragon Captured at Station Loaded with Critical Supplies and Science

The commercial SpaceX cargo Dragon, loaded with over 2.6 tons of critically needed supplies and science experiments, was captured by the crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Jan. 12) while soaring over the Mediterranean Sea.

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-5 cargo vessel arrived at the station following a flawless two day orbital pursuit and spectacular nighttime blastoff atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 on Jan. 10 at 4:47 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Note: This breaking news story is being updated. Check back frequently for updates.

Dragon was successfully berthed and bolted into place a few hours later at 8:54 a.m. EST.

Working at the robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed cupola, Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore of NASA, with the assistance of Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, successfully captured the Dragon spacecraft with the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm at 5:54 a.m. EST.

Wilmore grappled Dragon with the station’s 57-foot-long (17-meter-long) robotic arm at 5:54 a.m. EST, about 18 minutes ahead of schedule, in an operation shown live on NASA TV, back-dropped by breathtaking views of “our beautiful Earth” passing by some 260 miles (410 kilometers) below.

Among the goodies aboard are belated Christmas presents for the crew. The Falcon 9 and Dragon were originally scheduled to liftoff in December and arrive in time for the Christmas festivities.

The cargo freighter flew beneath the station to arrive at the capture point 32 feet (10 meters) away. Dragon’s thrusters were disabled at the time of grappling.

Robotics officers at Houston Mission Control then began remotely maneuvering the arm to berth Dragon at the Earth-facing port on the station’s Harmony module starting at 7:45 a.m. EST.

Dragon is being attached via the common berthing mechanism (CBM) using four gangs of four bolts apiece to accomplish a hard mate to Harmony. The overall grappling and berthing process requires a few hours.

Dragon was successfully berthed and bolted into place at 8:54 a.m. EST and its now part of the space station.

The crew will conduct leak pressure checks, remove the docking mechanism and open the hatch later today or tomorrow.

#Dragon is about 90 feet from #ISS, closing in on its capture point.  Credit: NASA TV
#Dragon is about 90 feet from #ISS, closing in on its capture point. Credit: NASA TV

CRS-5 marks the company’s fifth operational 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 station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Overall this is the sixth Dragon to arrive at the ISS.

The ISS cannot function without regular deliveries of fresh cargo by station partners from Earth.

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft is loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing, and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

Among the payloads is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), a remote-sensing laser instrument to measure clouds and the location and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, and other particulates and aerosols in the atmosphere that directly impact the global climate.

CATS is loaded aboard the unpressurized trunk of Dragon.

Also loaded onboard are 17 student experiments known collectively as the “Yankee Clipper” mission. The experiments are sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which oversees the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) in partnership with NanoRacks LLC.

The launch marked the first US commercial resupply launch since the catastrophic destruction of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS which exploded unexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.

The US supply train to the ISS is now wholly dependent on SpaceX until Cygnus flights are resumed, hopefully by late 2015, on an alternate rocket, the Atlas V.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station.   Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

Dragon will remain attached to the ISS for about four weeks until Feb. 10.

SpaceX also had a secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 booster’s first stage via an unprecedented precision guided landing on an ocean-going “drone.”

The history making attempt at recovering the Falcon 9 first stage was a first of its kind experiment to accomplish a pinpoint soft landing of a rocket onto a tiny platform in the middle of a vast ocean using a rocket assisted descent.

In my opinion the experiment was “a very good first step towards the bold company goal of recovery and re-usability in the future” as I wrote in my post launch report here at Universe Today.

Listen to my live radio interview with BBC 5LIVE conducted Saturday night, discussing SpaceX’s first attempt to land and return their Falcon-9 booster.

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

Ken Kremer

The SpaceX Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV
The SpaceX Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV

SpaceX Launch and Historic Landing Attempt Reset to Jan. 10

The oft delayed launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the CRS-5 cargo resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) has been reset to Saturday, Jan. 10.

Liftoff is currently targeted for 4:47 a.m. EST Saturday, Jan. 10, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida following a postponement from Friday, Jan. 9.

The launch was unexpectedly scrubbed with one minute, 21 seconds left on the countdown clock for technical reasons earlier this week just prior to the targeted blastoff time of 6:20 a.m. EST on Tuesday, Jan. 6.

A thrust vector control actuator for the Falcon 9’s second stage failed to perform as expected, resulting in a launch abort, said NASA.

NASA and SpaceX decided to take another day to fully evaluate the issue and ensure a launch success.

The launch will be the first Falcon 9 liftoff for 2015.

The overnight launch should put on a spectacular sky show for spectators along the Florida space coast.

There is only an instantaneous launch window available, meaning that the blastoff must proceed at that exact instant. Any delays due to technical issues or weather would force a scrub until at least Tuesday, Jan. 13.

SpaceX drone ship sailing at sea to hold position awaiting Falcon 9 rocket landing.  Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX
SpaceX drone ship sailing at sea to hold position awaiting Falcon 9 rocket landing. Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX

Overall, CRS-5 is the company’s fifth commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station.

In additional to being a critical cargo mission required to keep the space station stocked with provisions for the crew and research experiments, the mission features a history making attempt to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

The rocket recovery and landing attempt is a key step towards carrying out SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s bold vision of rocket reusability.

Towards that end, SpaceX dispatched the “autonomous spaceport drone ship” sailing at sea towards a point where Musk hopes it will serve as an ocean going landing platform for the precision landing of his firm’s Falcon 9 rocket after it concludes its launch phase to the ISS.

Testing operation of Falcon 9 hypersonic grid fins (x-wing config) launching on next Falcon 9 flight, CRS-5.   Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
Testing operation of Falcon 9 hypersonic grid fins (x-wing config) launching on next Falcon 9 flight, CRS-5. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

The “autonomous spaceport drone ship” departed the port of Jacksonville, FL, on Saturday, Jan. 3, heading to a point somewhere around 200 to 250 miles or so off the US East coast in a northeasterly direction coinciding with the flight path of the rocket.

However, the absolute overriding goal of the mission is to safely deliver NASA’s contracted cargo to the ISS, emphasized Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance, SpaceX, at a media briefing on Jan. 5 at the Kennedy Space Center.

Landing on the off-shore barge is just a secondary objective of SpaceX, not NASA, he repeated several times.

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft is loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing, and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops - Will Refly on SpaceX CRS 5.   Science experiments from these students representing 18 school communities across  America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS and which were lost when the rocket exploded uexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  The students pose here with SSEP program director Dr. Jeff Goldstein prior to Antares launch. The experiments will be re-flown aboard SpaceX CRS-5.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops – Experiments Will Refly on SpaceX CRS 5. Science experiments from these students, representing 18 school communities across America, were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS and which were lost when the rocket exploded unexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). The students pose here with SSEP program director Dr. Jeff Goldstein prior to Antares’ launch. The experiments will be re-flown aboard SpaceX CRS-5. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Among the payloads is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), a remote-sensing laser instrument to measure clouds and the location and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, and other particulates and aerosols in the atmosphere.

Also loaded onboard are 17 student experiments known collectively as the “Yankee Clipper” mission. The experiments are sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education which oversees the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) in partnership with NanoRacks LLC.

They had been selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS, but were all lost when the rocket exploded unexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.

The experiments have been reconstituted to fly on the CRS-5 mission.

The US supply train to the ISS is now wholly dependent on SpaceX until Cygnus flights are resumed hopefully by late 2015 on an alternate rocket, the Atlas V.

CRS-5 marks the company’s fifth 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 station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

The weather forecast stands at 80% GO for favorable conditions at launch time.

NASA Television live launch coverage begins at 3:30 a.m. EST on Jan. 10 at: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/

SpaceX also will webcast the launch at: http://www.spacex.com/webcast/

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

Ken Kremer

New countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center displays SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-5 mission and recent Orion ocean recovery at the Press Site viewing area on Dec. 18, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
New countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center displays SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-5 mission and recent Orion ocean recovery at the Press Site viewing area on Dec. 18, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Pingpong! How You Could Send Something Small High In The Atmosphere

Spring is a time of treasures in eggs — think about the Easter weekend that just passed, for example, or the number of chicks hatching in farms across the world. That’s also true of “near-space” exploration. A project called PongSats has sent thousands of tiny experiments into space, and is ready to send up another batch this coming September.

The concept is simple for the students participating — slice open a ball, put something inside you want to test at high experiments, then repackage it and decorate it for the big trip up. The balloons will soar to about 19 miles (30 kilometers), which is well below the Karman Line of 62 miles or 100 kilometers that marks the edge of space. Don’t discount that, however — you will still see black skies and the curvature of the Earth from that altitude.

Anyway, about the PongSats. A Kickstarter campaign (closing in five days) is asking for money to shoot these balls into the atmosphere, for science. While it’s aimed at young students, anybody can get an experiment on that balloon, the founder says.

Close-up view of the "Pongsats" bound for high altitudes and carrying student experiments. Credit: John Powell / JP Aerospace / Kickstarter
Close-up view of the “PongSats” bound for high altitudes and carrying student experiments. Credit: John Powell / JP Aerospace / Kickstarter

“My favorite is the marshmallow. You put a marshmallow inside the ping pong ball. At 100,000 feet the marshmallow puffs up completely filling the ball. Then it freeze dries. The student gets to hold in her hand the direct results of traveling [to] the top of the atmosphere,” wrote John Powell, the founder of the project. 

PongSat has already been through one successful Kickstarter round, when in 2012 the concept received $12,466 — a 138% increase over its $9,000 goal. That money was slated to send 1,000 student experiments into space. To date, the company has sent over 14,000 experiments aloft with only three losses — a 0.02% failure rate.

“However, the risk for a complete vehicle loss does exist,” Powell acknowledged, but said that after 164 flights, they “have gotten pretty good at it.” Any PongSats lost in flight will be flown again, no questions asked.

Powell’s project is part of a larger trend of sending items high in the sky — sometime for scientific purposes, and sometimes for other reasons. A Lego man and teddy bears are among those that made the journey.

Toronto Teens Launch Lego Main In Space to the Stratosphere - Jan 2012.  Stunning space imagery was captured by Canadian teenagers Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad when they lofted a tiny ‘Lego Man in Space’ astronaut to an altitude of 16 miles (25 kilometers) using on a helium filled weather balloon.  Credit: Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad. Watch the YouTube below
Toronto Teens Launch Lego Main In Space to the Stratosphere – Jan 2012. Stunning space imagery was captured by Canadian teenagers Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad when they lofted a tiny ‘Lego Man in Space’ astronaut to an altitude of 16 miles (25 kilometers) using on a helium filled weather balloon. Credit: Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad. Watch the YouTube below

This 2012 project was called “Lego Man In Space” (although of course, balloons fly high in the atmosphere and well below the Karman Line at 62 miles or 100 kilometers above the surface.) Two teenagers from Toronto, Canada — Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad — launched the weather balloon from a local field and captured some stunning video and pictures along the way.

“Upon launch we were very relieved. But we had a lot of anxiety on launch day because there were high winds when we were going up after all the hard work,” said Ho in a studio interview at the time on Canadian news channel CTV.

“We were also scared because now we would have to retrieve it back after it came down,” Asad said.

“We had no idea it would capture photos like that and would be so good,” said Ho. “We were blown away when we saw them back home.”

Two teddy bears sent high in the atmosphere by students in Cambridge, England in 2008. Credit: CU Spaceflight
Two teddy bears sent high in the atmosphere by students in Cambridge, England in 2008. Credit: CU Spaceflight

It’s a teddy bear party in the sky! A group of English 11-13-year-olds designed the spacesuits on these stuffed animals, which were sent aloft to 30,085 meters (101,066 feet) in 2008. While at first glance the purpose looks esoteric, the goal was to test which spacesuit materials best insulated against the -53 degrees Celsius (-63 Fahrenheit) temperatures the teddies endured.

Student-run Cambridge University Spaceflight helmed the project along with a science club and community college.

“We want to offer young people the opportunity to get involved in the space industry whilst still at school and show that real-life science is something that is open to everybody,” stated Iain Waugh, then chief aeronautical engineer of CU Spaceflight.

“High altitude balloon flights are a fantastic way of encouraging interest in science. They are easy to understand, and produce amazing results,” added Daniel Strange, treasurer of CU Spaceflight.

Sometimes the aim is more artistic, such as this German project that created a beautiful video showing the views from more than 100,000 feet (30,480 meters). You can see in the video above the careful preparations that go into launch, plus some of the side benefits — such as getting to make funny voices using helium! But it was the engineering challenges that attracted these students, they wrote Universe Today in 2011.

“Our challenge was to survive ambient air pressures as low as 1/100th of an atmosphere, temperatures as low as -60°C and finally to locate and recover the camera,” Tobias Lohf wrote . “We had a HD-Cam, GPS tracker and a heating pad on board, and all the construction had a total weight of about 1kg.”

The students emphasized that it doesn’t take a big budget or a lot of engineering to get that high. “All you need need is a camera, weather balloon and duct tape,” they said.