Spacex’s unmanned Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) at 9:03 AM EDT (1303 GMT) today. Marking the beginning of a new era of commercial space travel, the privately owned and operated cargo vehicle was captured at 6:56 AM EDT (1056 GMT) by one of the station’s robotic arms operated by Expedition 33 crew member Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Expedition 33 Commander Sunita Williams of NASA. It was then guided to a docking port where it will remain attached for the next three weeks.
The reusable Dragon spacecraft was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last Sunday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Despite the still unexplained failure of one Merlin engine in the first stage, Dragon successfully reached orbit. Since then, it has been executing a series of burns to match orbit with the ISS.
Today, it carried out another series of maneuvers to bring it closer to the station. These involved stopping at various points while mission control at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California and the crew of the ISS determined if the proximity sensors were operating properly and whether it was safe to proceed. Finally, it parked ten meters (32.8 ft) from the station and waited for the robotic arm to complete the docking sequence.
This is the Dragon’s second visit to the ISS, but the first of at least twelve that it will make under a US$1.6 billion contract with SpaceX to deliver cargo to the station. On this trip, it is carrying 905 kg (1,995 lbs) of assorted supplies and will bring a similar weight in experiments and samples back to Earth.
Currently, Dragon’s hatch remains sealed while the ISS crew complete safety checks. It is scheduled to be opened tomorrow.
The Dragon is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft that stands 4.4 m (14.4 ft) tall and is 3.66 m (12 ft) in diameter. Weighing 6,000 kg (13,228 lbs) at launch, it consists of a pressurized capsule and an unpressurized trunk that houses the craft’s solar power array. Attitude control is by 18 redundant Draco thrusters and on completing its mission, Dragon returns by parachute for a water recovery before refurbishment and reuse. SpaceX intends for the Dragon to be upgraded in the near future to make powered landings and eventually carry a crew.