Late last night, SpaceX effectively launched its Falcon 9 rocket on the company’s 20th cargo mission to the ISS, sending over 4,500 pounds of supplies and science experiments to the three crew members active in orbit. After takeoff, SpaceX then landed its Falcon 9 on a touchdown pad in Florida — the 50th overall rocket landing for the company.
Though it was a quite routine launch for the company, it was also an important one: the last resupply mission for NASA under SpaceX’s original agreement with the space agency. That doesn’t mean SpaceX will be done sending supplies to the ISS, though. In 2016, NASA granted SpaceX a second contract to continuing launching cargo missions to the station till 2024. And once this new round of launches starts, SpaceX’s hardware will get an advancement too. The company has used its Dragon 1 cargo capsule to transport all the supplies to the ISS for quite some time, but now, SpaceX will start using its new Dragon 2 capsule.
This new Dragon capsule is quite similar to the one that SpaceX will use to carry people to the space station at the end of this year. It’s somewhat bigger than its predecessor, able to transport about 20 percent more volume than before, and it can be re-used up till five times in space. Every Dragon 1 spacecraft could only be used up till three times. Moreover, it sports quite a few upgrades, including a completely new parachute technique. “We learned much on the Dragon 1 spaceship,” Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said in a press conference before the launch. “We applied all the lessons learned basically in Dragon 2 as much as we could.”
Maybe the biggest new feature of Dragon 2 is that it will be able to connect all on its own with the International Space Station. All of the previous Dragon cargo capsules had to have some help to get to the ISS. Each vehicle approached the station and an astronaut on board had to capture the capsule with a robotic arm. The arm would then bring the Dragon closer to the ISS and attach it onto a docking port. But from now on, both crew and cargo versions of Dragon will be able to approach the station and dock by themselves, releasing up time for the astronauts aboard the ISS.
SpaceX is likely to fly this new cargo Dragon capsule somewhere in the fall. Meanwhile, the final Dragon 1 launched last night is orbiting Earth and will dock with the International Space Station early Monday morning. When it is connected to the ISS, it’ll bring many supplies and experiments, including a system to explore organs on microchips. Dragon is also carrying a new European platform that will be connected on the outside of the ISS, allowing research companies and institutions to attach their own payloads on the outside of the station.
This Dragon will remain attached to the ISS for about a month, before coming back to Earth. When it departs, it’ll be loaded up with 4,000 pounds of cargo to be returned to the ground. Once the vehicle plops down in the ocean, the era of Dragon 1 will be ended. “Dragon 1 had a wonderful career and we’re really proud at how it added to the important science aboard the ISS,” Koenigsmann said. In fact, in 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon made history by becoming the first private vehicle to dock the ISS ever.
“We’re thankful for NASA for the ongoing support, and we’re looking onward to the continued success of Dragon,” said Koenigsmann.