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SpaceX successfully delivers Dragon spacecraft into low Earth orbit


May 22, 2012

Liftoff of the SpaceX Dragon/Falcon 9 mission to the ISS (Photo: NASA)

Liftoff of the SpaceX Dragon/Falcon 9 mission to the ISS (Photo: NASA)

Image Gallery (15 images)

In a stunning nightime launch at 3:44 Eastern Daylight Time, Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has sent the Dragon spacecraft into orbit on its way to a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). The Dragon will deliver about 460 kilograms of cargo, including food, disposables, several nanocubes for small-scale experimentation and blocks of ice.

Both the Dragon spacecraft and its Falcon 9 launch rocket were designed and constructed by SpaceX. The company has been working toward this moment for over six years under contract to NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, whose goal is to provide the United States with safe, reliable, and inexpensive cargo delivery services to and from the ISS.

The first orbital flight of the Falcon 9 vehicle was in December 2010, establishing that SpaceX could launch, orbit, and recover a payload contained in SpaceX's Dragon capsule. The current mission will prove that Dragon can rendezvous and link up with the International Space Station.

The Falcon 9/Dragon was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Some 10 minutes after launch, the Dragon reached a preliminary orbit, whereupon its solar arrays were successfully deployed.

The initial elliptical orbit varies from about 300 km to 450 km (217-280 miles) above the Earth's surface.

Dragon's inboard thrusters will undertake a series of burns to change its orbit and rendezvous with the ISS on Friday.

Schematic diagram of SpaceX Dragon spacecraft (Image: SpaceX)
Schematic diagram of SpaceX Dragon spacecraft (Image: SpaceX)

On reaching a rendezvous orbit, the ISS crew will take over the Dragon spacecraft, maneuver it to a position within reach of the Canadian ISS robotic arm, which will guide the Dragon to an ISS access hatch, onto which the Dragon will be latched by the crew to allow unloading and reloading under shirtsleeve conditions.

Artist's conception of the SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS (Photo: SpaceX)

After analyzing the air inside the Dragon to discover if any contaminants have been released during the launch process, the ISS crew will open the access hatch, and begin unloading the Dragon's cargo. This is expected to take about 25 hours over a two week period. Dragon is carrying 460 kg (1014 lbs) of non-critical cargo to the station - non-critical because this is considered a test flight. It will bring back about 620 kg (1367 lbs) on its reentry and return to Earth.

About four hours after Dragon carefully maneuvers away from the ISS for deorbiting, it will conduct a seven minute long deorbit burn. In the next half four following the deorbit burn, the Dragon will splash down in the Pacific Ocean about 450 km (250 miles) west of Southern California on the US West Coast, where it will be recovered by a small fleet of SpaceX ships. The landing location is controlled by firing the Draco thrusters (each capable of 400 N (90 lbs) of thrust) in a carefully orchestrated sequence during reentry.

Three main parachutes providing a soft landing to a test Dragon capsule (Photo: SpaceX)

Dual drogue parachutes which stabilize and slow the descent of the Dragon are deployed at 13.7 km (44,000 feet) altitude. The drogue chutes also pull out the three main parachutes, each 35 m (116 feet) in diameter at about 3 km (10,000 feet) above the ocean. The main parachutes slow the splash down of the Dragon capsule for a soft landing (5-6 meters per second, or 16-19 feet per second). In the event of a parachute failure, Dragon is designed to be able to make a nominal landing using only two main parachutes.

Much of historical SpaceX orbital ISS supply mission plan still remains to be carried out, and Gizmag will keep you apprised of new developments. However, in the words of famed science-fiction writer Larry Niven: when you are in low Earth orbit, you are halfway to anywhere.

We wish the SpaceX/NASA team the best of fortune on the remainder of this journey.

NASAtv coverage of the launch can be seen below.

Source: SpaceX and NASA.

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson

Congratulations! The dream is very much alive. As CEO of the American Rocket Company when we shut it down in 1995, I know just how hard this is. Bravo!

Brian Hughes

22nd May, 2012 @ 07:44 am PDT

Cheers to SpaceX for completing the first stage of this historic mission, and best hopes for the stages that lie ahead.

Jon A.
22nd May, 2012 @ 10:37 am PDT

what a fantastic moment in the history of space travel

22nd May, 2012 @ 06:11 pm PDT

I hope this is not the only company that succeeds at doing this. With competition comes competitive pricing and an incentive to do better/improve.

22nd May, 2012 @ 06:42 pm PDT

I would like know why they do not bring back to earth some of the space rubble, that is up there, why come back empty ?? Surely some of the things floating around out there are worth something if brought back ?? Plus, why litter space..mostly American stuff, just like on earth, junk food wrappers everywhere, mainly McDonalds.. Can just Imagine, when tourists are able to go into space, all we will see is litter everywhere, all stemming from USA...Why can't the people in charge of Space Exploring etc., make laws up stating not to litter...

Facebook User
23rd May, 2012 @ 03:19 am PDT

I would like know why they do not bring back to earth some of the space rubble, that is up there, why come back empty ?? Surely some of the things floating around out there are worth something if brought back ??


The 'rubble' is:

* Moving at over 17.000 MPH

* Scattered over a globe over 24,000 miles in circumference

* Much is toxic, with propellants, chem/nuclear leaks, sharp edges, etc.

Warren White
23rd May, 2012 @ 09:13 am PDT

@Paul Guy, "It will bring back about 620 kg (1367 lbs) on its reentry and return to Earth."

Perhaps you couldn't see that sentence past all the McDonalds wrappers, LOL

Paul Anthony
23rd May, 2012 @ 09:33 am PDT

They are not coming back empty. "It will bring back about 620 kg (1367 lbs) on its reentry and return to Earth." Its not like the ISS is shoving McDonalds wrappers out the airlock.

Karl L
23rd May, 2012 @ 09:51 am PDT

@ Paul Guy

I believe you missed an important sentence in the article.

"It will bring back about 620 kg (1367 lbs) on its reentry and return to Earth."

Cecil Hutchins
23rd May, 2012 @ 10:12 am PDT

Paul Guy . . . Many nations have launched all kinds of satellites--not just Americans--but that won't stop you from trying to take away from one of the coolest private sector accomplishments in the history of aviation and space exploration. This has the potential to make communication satellites affordable for even the poorest of nations, bringing much needed technology to third world countries. Dude . . .

From an article in Science rEvolution "NASA has elaborate rules and procedures for all, extra vehicular activities (EVAs), or space walks to tether tools and manage parts used for a job in space." From the same article "The US Air Force maintains a tracking facility to track orbiting debris and even flies satellites to monitor it. When China shot down an obsolete weather satellite in 2007 there was an outcry worldwide about the mass of floating garbage it created. All spacefaring nations, China included, have to be responsible for this. It could be China’s own astronauts who are killed by it."

So, especially in a forum filled with science geeks and afficianados, it is best to do one's homework and at least READ the article one is commenting on before spouting drivel.

PicklePop Flyer
23rd May, 2012 @ 12:06 pm PDT
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