SpaceX Dragon Makes Its First Atlantic Splashdown

Published January 14th, 2021 - 11:45 GMT
It contains a number of scientific experiments and a case of Bordeaux wine

SpaceX Dragon cargo ship loaded with science experiments, a case of wine, and live mice, has made its first ever splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, NASA confirmed. 

The spaceship autonomously undocked from the International Space Station on Tuesday, January 12 after a 36 day stay attached to the orbiting laboratory. 

Among the experiments on the ship are a crate of Bordeaux wine, live mice, and 3D printed buds that could one-day produce human organs from stem cells. 

In total there were 4,400lb of scientific research and other cargo that splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the West Coast of Florida at 01:30 GMT this morning. 

Previous SpaceX dragon cargo missions finished with a parachute assisted splashdown in the Pacific, but this new version of the spaceship is designed to land closer to the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This is where the space agency processes scientific experiments carried out on board the ISS -  so its splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

SpaceX Dragon is designed to be a reusable spacecraft that can safely deliver Equipment and cargo to the ISS as well as return science experiments back to Earth.

'The upgraded cargo Dragon capsule used for this mission contains double the powered locker availability of previous capsules, allowing for a significant increase in the research that can be delivered back to scientists,' NASA said.

'Some scientists will get their research returned quickly, four to nine hours after splashdown.' 

This is the first time science experiments from the space station have been able to return via Florida since the Space Shuttle stopped operating in 2011. 

To get back to the Earth, the experiments had to travel by capsule, helicopter, boat, plane, and car before making their way back to the researchers who designed them.

'I am excited to finally see science returning here again because we can get these time sensitive experiments into the lab faster than ever,' says Kennedy Space Center utilisation project manager Jennifer Wahlberg. 

'Sending science up to space and then receiving it again on the runway was definitely something in the shuttle days that we really took pride in, and being able to rejoin that process is great.' 

As the spacecraft returns to Earth, the experiments start to experience the effects of gravity again, NASA explained in a blog post.  

There is quite a process involved in getting the experiments from the floating capsule back to universities, companies, and other institutions.

NASA described the process, saying: 'After a SpaceX boat scoops the capsule out of the water, a waiting team pulls time-critical science out of the spacecraft and loads it onto a waiting helicopter.

'The helicopter will deliver this science to shore a few hours after splashdown. Any remaining scientific cargo will come back either in a second helicopter load or stay aboard the boat and be removed at the port.' 

The helicopter will land the experiments at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), previously used for space shuttle return activities. 

Then a team will move most of the cargo to the Kennedy Space Center Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) by truck, where science teams will be waiting.

'We are going to have a parade of researchers ready at Kennedy Space Center waiting to receive samples,' said Kennedy's Research Integration Office utilisation flight lead Mary Walsh.

Traditionally used to prepare experiments for launch to space, the SSPF is home to world-class laboratories that provide the tools and workspace to immediately take data and analyse samples, the space agency explained.

'The scientists will take a quick look to get initial results and then ship it back to their home bases,' says Wahlberg. 

'The benefit of being able to observe the science earlier is the ability to negate any gravitational effects on the research after it has been in space.' 

From the hub at Kennedy Space Center, the science samples and experiments will head around the globe to California, Texas, Massachusetts, Japan, and more. 

The large amount of science returning to Earth on this mission is possible thanks to upgrades to the SpaceX cargo Dragon spacecraft, which has double the powered locker capability of the company's previous capsules. 

On return, it can support up to 12 powered lockers, enabling transport of more cold cargo and power for additional payloads.

'The old capsule was like a cream filled doughnut. You packed everything around the walls, and then in the middle we put a big giant stack of bags,' said Walsh. 

'This upgraded cargo Dragon is more like a three-story house. You put stuff in the basement, then you pack that second story, then you go upstairs and pack the third story. So it's really different from a design perspective.' 

The next SpaceX Dragon cargo mission will be in May, and the crew Dragon capsule currently docked with the space station is due to return its four person crew in May. 

Before that another crew Dragon spaceship will launch in March to send another four astronauts up to the orbiting laboratory. 

This article has been adapted from its original source

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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