Following a catastrophic mishap last summer, SpaceX has successfully resumed flights to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 4:43 pm EST (2043 GMT) on Friday, April 8, carrying with it the Dragon cargo ship. A few minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage was preparing for its secondary mission: landing on a floating platform in the middle of the ocean. Just ten minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9 successfully touched down on the floating platform in a historic first.
SpaceX’s ultimate goal is one of reusability. Currently, once a rocket’s first stage has served its purpose, it is discarded. SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, wants to achieve the goal of reusability by recovering the rocket’s first stage. Therefore, the boosters need to land intact. The private spaceflight company made history in December when it successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket in the center of the landing pad at Cape Canaveral. Sticking a landing on terra firma is substantially easier than on a floating barge, but it’s not always an option. Ocean landings provide mobility and flexibility that land does not. In some instances, certain missions such as high-velocity ones, or those carrying larger payloads, will not have enough fuel to make it back to land and the drone ship can be moved to accommodate the rocket. To accommodate such missions, SpaceX has a pair of floating barges, officially known as Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS). The oceanic platforms, roughly the size of a football field, have been dubbed “Just Read the Instructions” and “Of Course I Still Love You,” as an homage to science fiction writer Iain M. Banks.
“This was a good milestone for the future of spaceflight and is another step towards the stars.”
As exciting as the landing attempts are, it’s important to know that SpaceX views them as a secondary mission. The primary objective of each launch is to deliver the payload to orbit; anything else is a bonus. In a post-launch press conference, Elon Musk described the successful mission: “This was a good milestone for the future of spaceflight and is another step towards the stars.” He went on to say that there will be other failures as the next few missions will be high-velocity missions and are unlikely to land in one piece. He also said we can expect to see another landing attempt on land in three missions.
Following the successful launch and landing of the Falcon 9, the cargo-carrying Dragon spacecraft arrived at the ISS on Sunday morning April 10 and successfully berthed with the station. The robotic spacecraft was loaded with crew supplies, research experiments and an expandable habitat module. The Dragon will remain attached to the station for about a month, before it will splashdown in Pacific Ocean, carrying with it vital research experiments including the zinnias and science samples from Scott Kelly’s time on orbit.
“Looks like we caught a Dragon,” British astronaut Tim Peake said on a NASA broadcast, as he grappled the spacecraft with the station’s robotic arm.
Over 250 research experiments will be conducted as part of expedition 47/48 and many of those arrived in the belly of the Dragon. We’ve outlined a few of them below.
Expedition 47/48 Experiments:
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM):
BEAM is a prototype expandable space habitat. The module will be installed on the space station’s exterior on April 15th, and once inflated it will remain for two years. The module is a smaller, test version of what could be the future of space habitation.
Fungi in space:
A group of researchers are sending a certain type of fungi into space to see if they can stress out the organisms enough to produce a certain type of molecule. These molecules could then be used to manufacture medicines in space and even improve medications here on Earth.
A new crop of leafy green will soon be installed on station. A variety of Chinese cabbage known as Tokyo Bekana will be grown as part of Veg-03. Previously red romaine lettuce and a batch of zinnias were grown to test out how plants grow in microgravity.
Genes in space:
As part of a national competition, a 17-year old high student watched as her experiment launched into space. Anna-Sophia Boguraev won the first Genes in Space competition, which is designed to test how a miniature PCR machine will work in microgravity. PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, machines make copies of DNA so researchers can study them in greater detail. Anna-Sophia’s experiment will be testing to see if there’s a link between immune system difficulties observed in astronauts and spaceflight.
A new crew of mousetronauts arrived on the Dragon. This crew of 20 mice will be testing a potential treatment for muscle wasting. Eli Lilly, a US pharmaceutical company, will see how well a myostatin inhibitor works in microgravity. If successful, the treatment has major implications for fighting ALS, muscular dystrophy, and muscle atrophy seen in cancer patients and the elderly.