By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
More than two tons of experiments, equipment and supplies was sent to the International Space Station early Jan. 10 when a SpaceX Falcon 9 roared off the pad at Space Launch Complex 40 to place a Dragon cargo capsule on a path to the orbiting laboratory.
The rocket lifted off on time at 4:47 a.m. EST from the Florida launch site adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center following a quiet countdown that played out to the second.
NASA flight controllers in Houston and SpaceX controllers at the company’s Hawthorne, California headquarters reported the spacecraft reached its preliminary orbit as planned and the flight was going extremely well. Dragon extended its two power-producing solar array wings moments after separating from the second stage to begin its independent flight.
Dragon, which is carrying only cargo and no crew, will take two days to catch up to the station. It will remotely fly close enough for station commander Butch Wilmore to grab the spacecraft with the station’s 57-foot-long robotic arm and latch it to the station.
This is the fifth operational cargo delivery mission for SpaceX to the station. The company’s contract with NASA calls for at least a dozen cargo delivery flights in all.
The cargo that Dragon is carrying is important to NASA’s scientific goals for the station in several areas. For instance, the mission is delivering the Cloud Aerosol Transport System instrument known as CATS that will be connected to the outside of the station. Riding along with the station on its 261-mile-high orbit, the CATS laser sensors can evaluate the clouds and tiny particles in Earth’s atmosphere to potentially decipher important clues for climate change and aid in weather forecasting on Earth.
“Clouds are one of the largest uncertainties in predicting climate change,” said Matt McGill, principal investigator and payload developer for CATS at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “For scientists to create more accurate models of Earth’s current and future climate, they’ll have to include more accurate representations of clouds.”
The spacecraft is also loaded with several biological experiments that take advantage of the microgravity environment unavailable on Earth to advance medical knowledge. One of the projects will grow proteins inside a 4-inch cube in weightlessness to research a suspected cause of Alzheimer’s and similar brain ailments in people. The research is preliminary, but a successful test could set up more detailed studies in the future.
The spacecraft also is loaded with equipment and supplies for the station and its crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts.
Dragon will remain connected to the station for more than four weeks while the astronauts unload it then repack it with equipment and supplies that are no longer needed along with experiments that have been completed and are ready to be returned to their researchers.
Dragon will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within a few hours of disconnecting from the station. It will descend under parachutes to the Pacific Ocean where a ship will retrieve the craft and bring it back to shore.