This morning, SpaceX is about 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 previous refueling missions. SpaceX flies its newly upgraded Dragon capsule to transport the goods to space – the same vehicle the company has been using to fly astronauts to the station.
SpaceX has been reintroducing the space station since 2012, and for each of its 20 previous missions, the company has used the original version of its Dragon cargo capsule. SpaceX started developing a new Dragon capsule, though, to transport people to and from the ISS. Called the Crew Dragon – or Dragon 2 – the vehicle carried its first crew into space in May. With the new version operational, SpaceX decided to stop using its old Dragon capsule and use the upgraded version to carry both crews a cargo.
The Dragon 2 capsule sports several upgrades over its predecessor; SpaceX says it can carry 50 percent more science payloads. The new Dragon can also automatically dock with the space station. The previous version had to be installed: it would slowly approach the ISS, while a crew member on board the station would use a robotic arm to grab the incoming capsule and move it to port open docking. Dragon 2 does not need any help from humans to dock and connect itself to the ISS.
This mission will bring supplies for the station and astronauts, and also brings several experiments to the ISS. They include the European Space Agency’s Bioasteroid, which will test how biofouling – the process of using microorganisms to extract rock elements – is affected by micrographs. The mission will also have the first COVID-19 drug research experiment in space aboard the ship, to try to improve the efficiency of antiviral drug removals. Also on board will be the Nanorocks commercial airlock module – essentially a large metal cup that attaches to the exterior of the ISS – designed to extract payloads and other materials from inside the ISS pressurized environment into space.
Once this capsule arrives at the space station, it will not be the only Dragon attached to the ISS. On November 15th, SpaceX launched a crew of four to the ISS on another Dragon capsule, which docked with the station a day later. That means two dragons will be docked in the ISS after this flight starts from the ground. “This will be the first time that two Dragons have been on the space station at the same time,” said Sarah Walker, Dragon Mission’s SpaceX managing director, during a pre-flight press conference. “And it really guides us into a season of Dragon’s continued presence in the near future, at least through the end of 2021.”
The mission was rescheduled due to weather concerns but is now slated to launch at 11:17 AM ET from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX uses one of its Falcon 9 rockets used for the mission, a vehicle that has flown three times before. In fact, it was the same rocket that launched SpaceX’s first crew of both stations in May. After the flight, the Falcon 9 will attempt to land on one of SpaceX’s drone ships in the Atlantic. The Dragon capsule is expected to dock with the ISS on December 7th. You can watch the launch live on SpaceX’s website here.