Sunday, March 3, 2013

Capturing a Dragon by the Tail on the ISS

The International Space Station has captured a dragon.

Dragon launches aboard its Falcon 9 rocket on Friday March 1 
Yes, I know. Sounds a bit strange right? But it's true. The Expedition 34 crew aboard the International Space Station have successfully grappled and docked the SpaceX Dragon capsule, carrying nearly 1300 pounds of cargo to support systems aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Dragon took off on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday, on only its second flight to resupply the station(excluding test flights) destined for docking this morning. Some of the cargo that will be unpacked by the astronauts include 17 different scientific experiments, that will be studied in the weightless environment aboard the station, as well as crew supplies like food and clothing.

Grapple and docking procedures were carried out using the station's robotic arm- Canadarm2, by NASA astronaut and Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford, and fellow NASA astronaut and Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn. Once grappled, Dragon was installed onto the Earth-facing port of the ISS by a team working in Mission Control in Houston. Dragon was then bolted into place through commands by Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency.

Catching a Dragon by the Tail
The station's Canadarm2 plucked  a dragon out of its 10 meter holding point, with official time of grappling occurring at 10.31am GMT. Dragon was then berthed to the space station's Harmony Module, with docking confirmed at 1:56pm GMT.

However, it is worth noting that the mission had to be delayed by one day due to a malfunction in the Dragon's solar arrays and thruster pods, shortly after launch on Friday, March 1st. This led to fears that SpaceX's Dragon mightn't be able to reach the 240 mile-high orbit of the ISS. Fortunately, these problems were eventually ironed out and teams on the ground gave the all-clear for a rendezvous with the station, followed by grapple and docking. The date for Dragon's unberthing, release and splashdown still remain planned for March 25.
Dragon docked to the station's Harmony Module 

This mission to resupply the ISS is SpaceX's second of 12 planned flights. It is hoped that if everything goes according to plan, astronauts will once again be able to launch from US soil into space, no longer having to rely on the Russians. The date for Dragon's first manned flight is expected to launch sometime in 2015.

In the mean time, while these private companies are flying back and forth from the ISS, NASA is now able to focus on going beyond low-earth orbit, and flying humans farther into space than ever before. The agency is currently developing systems, designs and hardware for its Space Launch System(SLS), and in particular, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, scheduled to make its first test flight in 2014.