A SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule was parachuted to spray the target west of Tampa on Wednesday night, returning more than two tons of experimental samples from the International Space Station, including live rodents and a dozen bottles of French wine aged in space.
The merchant delivery ship, flying on autopilot, fell out of orbit and re-entered the atmosphere over the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night. A series of parachutes deployed to slow the launch of the capsule at a relatively light spray speed west of Tampa, where a SpaceX recovery ship was ready to pull the spacecraft out of the sea.
The return completed a 38-day mission for Cargo Dragon, the first in a new design of SpaceX delivery ships serving the International Space Station. The upgraded Cargo Dragon or Dragon 2 replaces the fleet of first-generation SpaceX Dragon cargo capsules, which last flew in early 2020.
SpaceX confirmed the successful release of Cargo Dragon with a tweet. NASA and SpaceX did not provide a direct coverage of the capsule’s return to Earth. A NASA WB-57 imaging aircraft flew over the recovery area to capture images of the fiery re-entry and spraying of the cargo dragon.
NASA issued a statement later Wednesday night confirming that the capsule was sprayed at 8:26 p.m. EST (0126 GMT).
Cargo Dragon disembarked from the space station at 9:05 a.m. EST (1405 GMT) on Tuesday, a day later than planned. SpaceX and NASA managers delayed return home due to bad weather in the main Atlantic recovery area northeast of Daytona Beach
The dragon returned to Earth with 4,414 pounds, or 2,002 kilograms of cargo, according to a NASA spokesman.
The new Cargo Dragon capsules were obtained from the Crew Dragon spacecraft, evaluated by the SpaceX man who transports astronauts to and from the space station. The upgraded Cargo Dragon capsule, like the Crew Dragon, is designed to be sprayed off the coast of Florida, closer to SpaceX’s Dragon upgrade facility at Cape Canaveral Space Station.
Closer proximity to Cape Canaveral allows SpaceX to return a time-sensitive payload to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in just four to nine hours. Dragon’s past cargo missions ended with flights to the Pacific off the coast of Baja California and took days to transfer samples from NASA space stations.
The recovery ship Go Navigator, staffed by SpaceX technicians and engineers, was expected to lift the capsule aboard the deck after leaving. The SpaceX team plans to unload time-critical scientific specimens and put them on a helicopter to fly to the Kennedy Space Center overnight.
The helicopter will arrive at Kennedy’s launch and landing facility, and the cargo will be transported to a nearby space station handling facility by truck, according to NASA.
Scientists there will receive samples to begin their analysis. After a quick look at the SSPF in Kennedy, some of the materials will be sent to research teams in California, Texas, Massachusetts, Japan and elsewhere, NASA said.
The return of scientific specimens to Kennedy so soon after their return to space returns to the space shuttle program, when missions bring cargo directly to the Florida spaceport.
“I’m glad I’m finally seeing science come back here again because we can do these time-sensitive experiments in the lab faster than ever,” said Jennifer Wahlberg, project manager for the Kennedy Space Center, in statement. “Sending science into space and then getting it back on the runway was definitely something in the days of the shuttle that we were really proud of, and the opportunity to join that process is great.”
The experiments, which returned aboard the Cargo Dragon, included live mice as part of a Rodent Research 23 study that examined the function of arteries, veins and lymph structures in the eye and changes in the retina before and after space flight, according to NASA.
Scientists are looking for insight into whether these changes affect vision. At least 40 percent of astronauts experience vision impairment during long space flights, NASA says.
“The Rodent-23 study is designed to begin studying the reactions of rodent gravity adaptation as quickly as possible, making it an ideal candidate for this flight,” said Jennifer Buckley, deputy chief scientist on the International Space Station program. at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
On board the Cargo Dragon: twelve bottles of Bordeaux wine and 320 vine cuttings.
The wine bottles spent more than a year on the space station after the launch of the delivery ship Northrop Grumman Cygnus in late 2019. Now back on Earth, some of the bottles will be open for exclusive tasting, while researchers will begin a more scientific analysis of part of wine to assess how it matured after 14 months in microgravity.
Scientists will look at vine branches – called canes – to assess how they withstood radiation and low-gravity medium in orbit. One of the goals of a privately funded experiment run by a Luxembourg startup called Space Cargo Unlimited is to learn how plants adapt to the stress of spaceflight.
Space Cargo Unlimited says grapes and wineries are vulnerable to climate change, and the results of the space station experiment could lead to lessons in growing grapes in a harsher environment on Earth.
There was also a biomedical experiment led by researchers at Stanford University to look at how microgravity affects cardiovascular cells, and an experiment developed by Japanese scientists to demonstrate the growth of 3D buds on human stem cells in space.
Other experiments returned to Earth include a payload led by researchers at Texas State University who seek to identify bacterial genes used during biofilm growth. The investigation examines whether these biofilms can corrode stainless steel and evaluates the effectiveness of a silver-based disinfectant to help designers of future long-lasting spacecraft.
Materials from a demonstration of optical fiber production technology were also returned to Cargo Dragon. Scientists and engineers will study the optical materials produced on the space station to see if they match the predictions that the fibers produced in space have “far better qualities than those produced on Earth,” NASA said.
The upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft has a larger internal volume than the first-generation SpaceX cargo ship Dragon, which completed its last mission to the space station in 2020. It also has twice the power locked by previous Dragon capsules and can to support up to 12 such lockers to return to Earth, adding more capacity to return frozen and chilled samples.
“The use of the previous Dragon spacecraft could take up to 48 hours from the moment the capsule hit the Pacific Ocean to return to Long Beach, California. Then we started distributing these samples about four to five hours later, ”said Mary Walsh, flight manager for the Kennedy Integration Office. “We will now have early return science and pass it on to researchers just four to nine hours after spraying.”
“This ability to return to science quickly is so important to space biology because we want to know if the effects we are trying to measure on the orbit are due to the state of microgravity or the stress that a participant or sample can see on landing.” said Kirt Costello, chief scientist of NASA’s space station program. “So getting back on the nose really quickly and being handed over to our scientists is a great new ability.”
Other changes introduced with the new Cargo Dragon spacecraft include the ability to automatically board and unload the station. The first-generation Dragon cargo ships were gripped by the station’s robotic arm.
The Cargo Dragon’s pressure compartment can be reused five times, according to SpaceX. The non-pressure boot is disposable and a new one will fly on each Cargo Dragon mission.
Before launching its rocket launchers to fall out of orbit, the Cargo Dragon dropped its trunk to stay in space before atmospheric resistance caused it to re-enter the atmosphere and burn. The capsule also closes a nasal cone to cover its docking port before immersing itself back in the atmosphere.
Cargo Dragon 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 connection to a new docking port at the zenith or the top of the research module’s Harmony module.
He delivered numerous experiments and a commercial gateway to the space station for Nanoracks, a Houston-based company that plans to use the add-on to deploy small satellites, dump garbage and conduct research.
The Cargo Dragon mission is the 21st spacecraft delivery flight to the SpaceX space station since 2012 with a multibillion-dollar contract with NASA.
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