Tuesday, April 14, 2015

SpaceX Launches Supply Mission to Space Station but Rocket Landing Fails

Liftoff of Falcon 9 and Dragon on the CRS-6 mission to resupply the International Space Station​ on Apr. 14, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

Research that will help prepare NASA astronauts and robotic explorers for future missions to Mars is among the two tons of cargo now on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. The spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:10 p.m. EDT Tuesday, April 14 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The climb to space was picture perfect, but an attempt to land the rocket's first stage on a barge stationed some 200 miles east of Jacksonville -- a key step in SpaceX founder Elon Musk's drive to lower launch costs -- was not successful. The rocket made it down to the barge, but it tipped over after touchdown. "Ascent successful. Dragon (cargo ship) enroute to space station," Musk tweeted about 25 minutes after launch. "Rocket landed on droneship, but too hard for survival."

The mission is the company's sixth cargo delivery flight to the station through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. Dragon's cargo will support approximately 40 of the more than 250 science and research investigations that will be performed during Expeditions 43 and 44, including numerous human research investigations for NASA astronaut Scott Kelly's one-year mission in space.

“Five years ago this week, President Obama toured the same SpaceX launch pad used today to send supplies, research and technology development to the ISS,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Back then, SpaceX hadn’t even made its first orbital flight. Today, it’s making regular flights to the space station and is one of two American companies, along with The Boeing Company, that will return the ability to launch NASA astronauts to the ISS from U.S. soil and land then back in the United States. That’s a lot of progress in the last five years, with even more to come in the next five.”

One of the experiments will explore the changes in common bone cells of mice to see what changes in the cells in microgravity. Astronauts routinely loose bone mass during missions and researchers want to stop that bone density drop-off. The field is also of deep interest on Earth where any solution to the problem for astronauts may also apply to people on Earth suffering from osteoporosis.

Scientists also want to determine how much fluid shifts in the body in weightlessness so they can figure out whether changes in astronauts' vision are related to additional pressure in the brain from fluids that gravity would otherwise force into lower parts of the body.

Some of the research focuses on synthetic muscle to see how it withstands radiation in low-Earth orbit. Artificial muscles could one day replace some of the metal components in robots to give them more human capabilities without reducing their capacity to perform tasks that would help astronauts on the station.

The Dragon's scientific contribution will not end with the delivery of its 4,300 pounds of experiments and equipment. Astronauts will pack the spacecraft with some 3,000 pounds of used gear and unneeded packaging. Completed science experiments will also be loaded into the capsule. After about five weeks in orbit, the Dragon will separate from the station and fly an automatic trajectory to return to Earth through the atmosphere and parachute to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

After retrieval, the Dragon can be unloaded and the hardware sent to its home center for analysis where necessary. Scientists will get their work back, too, for more evaluation as new research is considered for upcoming missions on the station.

ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will use the space station's robotic arm to grapple Dragon to the station at 7 a.m. Friday, April 17. Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA will assist.

After about five weeks, Dragon will depart the space station for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California. The capsule will return more than 3,000 pounds of science, hardware, crew supplies and spacewalk tools.

SpaceX tweeted photos showing the booster descending under rocket power just above the deck of the barge with its four landing legs extended. A second photo showed black smoke swirling around the base of the rocket, apparently just before or after touchdown. Musk tweeted: "Looks like Falcon landed fine, but excess lateral velocity caused it to tip over post landing."

The first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster descends toward touchdown on an offshore landing barge. Company founder Elon Musk tweeted the rocket landed "too hard for survival." Credit: SpaceX
The first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster descends toward touchdown on an offshore landing barge. Company founder Elon Musk tweeted the rocket landed "too hard for survival." Credit: SpaceX

Earlier attempts to land on the barge, named "Just Read The Instructions," were not successful due to to stormy weather and problems with stabilizing fins needed to help control the descent. SpaceX fixed the technical issues, but pulling off a successful landing remains an elusive goal.

Credit: NASAcbsnews.com

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