This morning, SpaceX is due to launch its latest batch of cargo and supplies to the International Space Station, but the company is using a slightly different spacecraft for this flight than a replenishment mission from the past. SpaceX flies its newly upgraded Dragon capsule to transport goods into space – the same vehicle the company uses to fly astronauts to the station.
SpaceX has been supplying the space station since 2012, and the company used the original version of the Dragon cargo case for all of its 20 previous missions. However, SpaceX began developing a new dragon capsule to transport people to the ISS and back. Called the Crew Dragon – or Dragon 2 – the vehicle took its first crew into space in May. With the new version in operation, SpaceX has decided to stop using its old Dragon capsule and use the improved version to transport both crews. and cargo.
The Dragon 2 capsule has a number of improvements over its predecessor; SpaceX says it can take it 50 percent more payload on science. The new Dragon is also able to automatically dock the space station. The previous version had to be anchored: it slowly approached the ISS as a crew member aboard the station grabbed the incoming capsule with a robotic arm and moved it to the open docking port. Dragon 2 doesn’t need any human help to join the ISS.
This mission will bring supplies for the station and astronauts and will also bring several experiments on the ISS. They include the European Space Agency’s bioasteroid, which tests how biogravity – the process of using microorganisms to extract elements from rocks – is affected by microgravity. The mission will also have on board the first experiment with COVID-19 drug research in space, which will try to improve the effectiveness of the antiviral drug remdesivir. Also on board will be Nanorocks’ commercial transition chamber – essentially a large metal vessel that attaches to the outside of the ISS – designed to receive payloads and other materials from inside the ISS’s pressurized environment into space.
Once this capsule reaches the space station, it will not be the only dragon connected to the ISS. On November 15, SpaceX launched a four-member crew on the ISS for another Dragon capsule, which joined the station a day later. This means that after this flight leaves the country, two dragons will dock on the ISS. “This will be the first time there are two Dragons on the space station at the same time,” Sarah Walker, director of Dragon missions in SpaceX, told a pre-flight press conference. “And indeed it introduces a period of Dragon’s continuous presence in the near future, at least until the end of 2021.”
The mission was scheduled due to weather concerns, but is now scheduled to launch at 11:17 a.m. from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX uses one of its used Falcon 9 missiles for the mission, a vehicle that has flown three times before. In fact, it is the same rocket that launched the first pair of SpaceX crews from the station in May. After the flight, the Falcon 9 attempts to land on one of the SpaceX drone ships in the Atlantic. Dragon Capsules are expected to join the ISS on December 7. You can watch the launch live on the SpaceX website here.