A SpaceX Update: rocket landings, a mouse in space, a parking spot for space taxis, and explosions.

What are SpaceX’s missions for?

SpaceX launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. Photo courtesy of NASA

SpaceX launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. Photo courtesy of NASA

SpaceX’s most recent mission, CRS-9, which was set in motion this week, was the ninth of twenty SpaceX resupply missions commissioned by NASA for $1.6 billion. The goal of CRS-9 was to deliver a Dragon cargo carrier to the International Space Station (ISS) and return the Falcon 9 rocket safely back to land.

Wait, hasn’t a Falcon 9 exploded before?

Falcon 9 from CRS-6 is destroyed on landing. Photo courtesy of @elonmusk.

Falcon 9 from CRS-6 is destroyed on landing. Photo courtesy of @elonmusk.

Yeah, twice. Last year, a loose helium tank caused an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket toexplode two minutes after the CRS-7 mission launch. Another unmanned rocket from the CRS-6 mission exploded in June because of an unstable landing caused by a stuck valve and a resulting mechanical issue. However, this was only a secondary mission. The CRS-6 mission was successful in delivering its Dragon cargo carrier, but the attempted first stage landing resulted in the Falcon 9’s destruction.

Did this rocket survive?

CRS-9 launches. Photo courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast.

CRS-9 launches. Photo courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast.

The Falcon 9 rocket used for CRS-9 successfully detached from its second stage, thenlanded solidly at Cape Canaveral. This created a sonic boom experienced by spectators and people in surrounding areas. A flood of calls to 9–1–1 were placed by people reporting that they were woken up by an explosion.

The CRS-9 first stage landing was SpaceX’s second successful land-landing. Additionally, three first stages have landed successfully on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). As was demonstrated by CRS-9 this week, SpaceX is improving on their goal to bring their rockets safely back to Earth after depositing cargo, as one of SpaceX’s main objectives is to reuse its rockets. Previously, after rockets detached from their second stages, they jettisoned into the ocean and were either rendered useless or they required extensive and expensive repairs in order to be used in another mission. By soft-landing its rockets, SpaceX is saving time and money, and looking pretty cool, too. After several successful Falcon 9 landings, it seems that reusable rockets will become standard as spaceflight becomes more frequent and expands to the private sector.

Did the Dragon make it to the ISS?

The robotic arm grapples the Dragon. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The robotic arm grapples the Dragon. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Yes! After a successful rocket launch, separation of the first and second stages, and return of the first stage to Cape Canaveral, Dragon reached its orbit in ten minutes. The spacecraft chased down the ISS for two days, then was grabbed by a robotic arm and positioned at a docking port. Dragon will return to Earth on August 29.

What is the Dragon carrying?

Heart cells. Photo courtesy of Haixa Wang/Gladstone Institutes

Heart cells. Photo courtesy of Haixa Wang/Gladstone Institutes

The Dragon cargo carrier has on board over 5,000 pounds of equipment and science experiments. This includes a new docking port, the first of which exploded in the failed CRS-7 mission. The docking port will act as a parking spot for “commercial space taxis”. NASA is looking to private space companies to fill the docking port, expecting that a module will lead to the creation of a space station from the private sector once the ISS retires.

The Dragon was also carrying equipment for about 250 scientific experiments never before performed in space. A DNA sequencer will help identify diseases and could later be put to use analyzing extraterrestrial life. For now, it will be performing tests on a virus and a mouse, who, unfortunately, will not ever make the trip back to Earth. In the Dragon delivery was also a sample of live, beating heart cells. These will be tested after a month to check for changes in size, shape, and function. Another test will investigate bone loss in zero-g and compare it to the same test performed in a zero-g simulator stationed on Earth. If the results of the space test and the Earth test are close enough, future experiments will be conducted on Earth. Additionally, Dragon delivered tomato seeds that will later return to Earth to be planted, and microbes that grew out of the radioactive environment at Chernobyl. These microbes will be tested for changes in zero-g and could yield valuable discoveries about radiation treatment.

When Dragon returns on August 29, it will be carrying the results of these experiments, having left the docking port behind for future trips.

Who’s up there to greet the Dragon?

Kate Rubins, Anatoly Ivanishin, and Takuya Onishi before departing on Soyuz spacecraft. Photo courtesy of NASA

Kate Rubins, Anatoly Ivanishin, and Takuya Onishi before departing on Soyuz spacecraft. Photo courtesy of NASA

Two NASA astronauts, including one who worked with the team that developed the DNA sequencer delivered by Dragon, are currently working in the ISS. Additionally, one Japanese astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts are stationed there. A Russian cargo ship, Progress 64, arrived at the ISS two days before Dragon, delivering food and extra supplies for the crew. Progress 64 will stay at the ISS for six months while the crew fills it with trash, then the spacecraft will depart and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

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