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SpaceX Space Station Supply Demo in Orbit

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

May 23, 2012

SpaceX Space Station Supply Demo in Orbit

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

SpaceX (News - Alert) successfully launched its NASA COTS 2 mission today, with its Falcon 9 rocket carrying a fully-configured Dragon spacecraft into low earth orbit (LEO). 

If all goes well, the Dragon spacecraft will berth with the International Space Station (ISS) later this week, demonstrating the private company’s ability to deliver supplies to the orbiting $100-billion laboratory. 

The Falcon 9/Dragon successfully launched from SpaceX’s licensed pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 3:44 AM eastern time. Once in orbit, the Dragon deployed a pair of solar panels on its service module and started its three day journey to line up with ISS’s orbit.

“For us it is like winning the Super Bowl,” said SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk, expressing his gratitude to over 1,800 SpaceX employees and NASA. 

Over the next three days, the Dragon service module and capsule will conduct a series of checkout procedures and tests to demonstrate its ability to safety and successfully rendezvous and berth with ISS.  On Thursday, May 24, Dragon will perform a 1.5-mile flyby “below” the space station and a simulated abort. 

If NASA and SpaceX are happy with the results, Dragon will be cleared to rendezvous and dock with the station on the 25th. The SpaceX vehicle will close to grabbing distance of the station’s robotic arm.  

Between May 26 and May 31, the Dragon capsule will be unloaded of supplies and filled with return cargo – an important point.  Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the space station has had no large downmass capability. In the post-Shuttle era, Dragon is the only system that will provide downmass capability for experiments and large pieces of equipment.

Today’s flight marks the third successful consecutive launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and the second consecutive orbiting of a Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX describes the performance of the Falcon 9 first stage as “nominal.” Engineers are likely pouring over performance of the Falcon 9 second stage at this point to make sure there weren’t any glitches; the second launch of Falcon 9 in December 2010 had an “oxidixer-rich” event in the second stage that led to unfounded rumors it had exploded in orbit.

Things to watch as the mission progresses are the performance of the Dragon spacecraft in orbit, and, as noted above, the ability of Dragon to rendezvous and connection with ISS. This is the first long-duration flight of the full Dragon cargo vehicle with capsule and service module; the COTS 1 December 2010 launch simply put a capsule into orbit for four orbits before a successful re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

A successful mission will open the door for SpaceX to start a regular set of cargo deliveries to ISS, with NASA making payment to the company upon completion of each mission – another change from traditional government cost-plus contracts. 

SpaceX hopes to squeeze in two cargo deliveries by the end of the year if the COTS 2 trip is a success, with two more cargo supply missions to take place per year through at least 2015.

Edited by Braden Becker

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