Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Dragon Spacecraft Returns to Earth, Splashes Down in the Pacific

SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule departs the International Space Station on Sunday. Credit: David Saint-Jacques/NASA/CSA

Packed with about two tons of cargo and science, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft departed the International Space Station on Sunday, January 13. A parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean occurred at about 9:10 p.m. PST, just west of Baja California. That same evening, a recovery team secured Dragon on a boat for the return trip to the Port of Los Angeles, wrapping up SpaceX’s 16th resupply mission to the space station.

Filled with more than 5,600 pounds of supplies and payloads, Dragon launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on December 5, 2018 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and arrived at the space station on December 8. The Dragon spacecraft flown on this mission previously visited the space station during SpaceX’s CRS-10 mission in February 2017. Dragon is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth. 

The cargo delivery included 40 mice sent to the space station to study the effects of microgravity on the animals’ immune systems, muscles and bones, information that scientists compare to the condition of a control group of mice kept on Earth. Twenty of the mice were expected to travel back to Earth aboard the Dragon capsule Sunday.

Also delivered to the space station aboard Dragon was a scientific investigation to grow protein crystals in microgravity, with the aim to help researchers understand how an antioxidant protein helps protect the human body from oxidizing radiation. Scientists also sent up experiments to study the causes of muscle abnormalities observed in spaceflight, and to examine the corrosion of carbon steel materials in space.

In addition to the biological experiments stowed inside the Dragon’s internal compartment, the spaceship’s rear cargo bay contained a pair of NASA payloads that were mounted outside the space station by the robotic arm. One will demonstrate new tools and techniques that could lead to a future capability to refuel satellites with cryogenic propellants in space, and another will scan the planet with a laser to measure the height, density and structure of forest canopies, data that could tell scientists more about the role of forests in the carbon cycle.

Once astronauts finished unpacking the fresh supplies, they installed refrigerated samples and other equipment into Dragon spacecraft for return to Earth.

Dragon’s return was scheduled for Thursday, but officials pushed back the departure due to bad weather in the splashdown zone in the Pacific Ocean. Managers eventually decided to target Dragon’s return to a different location farther south in the Pacific to take advantage of calmer seas, shifting the cargo freighter’s departure and splashdown from Sunday morning to Sunday night.

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