Sunday, April 10, 2016

SpaceX Dragon Returns to International Space Station

The SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle has arrived at the International Space Station on its eighth flight to resupply the orbiting complex.

The Commercial Resupply Services(CRS)-8 was captured by ESA astronaut Tim Peake using the station's robotic arm, Canadarm2. Capture was confirmed to have taken place at 7:23 a.m. Eastern Time as the station flew 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean.
Dragon and Cygnus docked to the International Space Station simultaneously
for the first time. credit: NASA TV

Shortly after grapple, the Expedition 47 Flight Engineer informed teams of flight controllers in Mission Control in Houston and in SpaceX Headquarters in Hawthorne California of his success;

"Looks like we've captured a Dragon" 

Two hours later at 9:57 a.m. robotic operators in Mission Control in Houston slowly berthed the vehicle to the Earth-facing port of the station's Harmony module.

Today's arrival is an historic one, as it marks the first time that two commercially-built cargo vehicles will be docked to the International Space Station simultaneously. Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo craft is currently bolted to the Unity module of the ISS having arrived on March 26.

It also marks only the second time in the history of the International Space Station programme that six visiting vehicles have been docked to the station at once.

Dragon, making its Return to Flight to the ISS following a catastrophic launch anomaly in June 2015, launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 9:43 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday April 8 from Cape Canaveral carrying 6,900 pounds/3,130 kilograms worth of science research, crew supplies and hardware to the orbiting laboratory in support of the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

Just minutes after first stage separation, the rocket's first stage fell back to Earth, fired its thrusters and deployed its landing legs before successfully landing upright for the first time on a barge at sea. Friday's activities marked the second time that Elon Musk's company has accomplished such a feat - the first coming back on December 21.

Today's arrival will bring to an end the recent period of busy traffic to and from the International Space Station. CRS-8 is the fourth visiting vehicle to visit the laboratory in as many weeks, following the arrival of the Soyuz TMA-20M, Cygnus CRS OA-6 and the Progress 63P.

On April 15, robotic operators will once again take control of Canadarm2 and remove the much anticipated Bigelow Expandable Activity Module(BEAM), and berth it to the aft port of the station's Tranquility module.

Bigelow Expandable Activity Module(BEAM)

BEAM is an expandable habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace that will remain on station for a period of two years. NASA and its partners are currently investigating the practicalities of using expandable habitats in the near-Earth environment as well as on future missions to the Moon or Mars.

This will be the first time an expandable habitat will be docked to the station, so the procedure will take some time, allowing teams to closely observe the expansion process as well as the safety of the crew and the station. During this time the module will expand from its packed dimensions of 7.75 feet in diameter and 5.7 feet long, to its pressurised size of 10,5 feet in diameter and 12 feet long.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module(BEAM) being loaded into the
trunk of the SpaceX Dragon capsule at Cape Canaveral. credit: NASA

The expandable module is made up of soft fabrics instead of metal which allows the habitat to be packed to a small volume during launch and later expanded to its full size in space. Two radiation sensors, temperature and micrometeorite impacts inside BEAM will help scientists and engineers to better understand thermal, radiation and long-term leak performance of expandable habitats.

The habitat will be inflated by the crew at the end of May and it is expected that crew members will enter BEAM twice or three times per six month increment to swap out sensors that need to be returned to Earth for analysis.

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