This morning, SpaceX will launch its newest batch of cargo and supplies to the International Space Station, but the company is using a slightly different spacecraft for these flights than its previous supplier missions. SpaceX flies a newly upgraded Dragon capsule to transport goods into space — the same vehicle the company uses to fly astronauts to the station.
SpaceX has supplied the space station since 2012, and for all of its previous 20 missions, the company has used the original version of its Dragon cargo capsule. SpaceX began developing a new Dragon capsule for transporting people to and from the ISS. Called the Crew Dragon — or Dragon 2 — the vehicle took its first crew into space in May. With the new version operational, SpaceX decided to discontinue the use of its old Dragon capsule and use the upgraded version to transport crew and cargo.
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Dragon 2 capsule has many improvements over its predecessor; SpaceX says it can carry 50 percent more science payloads. The new Dragon is also capable of automatically docking with the space station. Previous versions had to dock: it would slowly approach the ISS, while crew members at the station would use a robotic arm to grab the incoming capsule and move it to an open docking port. Dragon 2 doesn’t need any help from humans to dock and attach itself to the ISS.
The mission will bring supplies for the station and astronauts and will also bring experiments to the ISS. They include the European Space Agency’s Bioasteroid, which will test how biomining — the process of using microorganisms to extract elements from rock — affected by microgravity. The mission also will have the first COVID-19 drug research experiment in space on board to try to improve the efficiency of antiviral drug remdesivir. Also on board will be Nano rocks’ commercial airlock module — basically, a large metal cup that attaches to the exterior of the ISS — designed to get payloads and other materials from inside the pressurized environment of the ISS out into space.
Once this capsule reaches the space station, it won’t 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 there will be two Dragons docked at the ISS after this flight gets off the ground. “It’ll be the first time that there are two Dragons on the space station simultaneously,” Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said during a press conference ahead of the flight. “And it really ushers in a season of continuous Dragon presence for the near future, at least through the end of 2021.”
The mission was rescheduled due to weather issues but slated for launch at 11:17 am ET from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX used one of its second-hand Falcon 9 rockets for the mission, a vehicle that had flown three times before. In fact, it’s the same rocket that launched SpaceX’s first crew of two to the station 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.