After a day-long weather delay, the SpaceX Falcon blasted off early this morning, on a cargo run to our astronauts in orbit. The Dragon is carrying bits and pieces for 255 experiments, including a cadre of moustronauts, a new wind-tracking accessory for the station, and a 3D printer.
Top image: Falcon 9 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, carrying the Dragon capsule into orbit on its resupply mission to the space station. Credit: SpaceX
Originally scheduled in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the launch was scrubbed due to poor weather conditions. It was rescheduled for just under a day later, despite an uncertain weather forecast. Weather improved dramatically as the launch window approached, clearing up to let the Falcon 9 rocket blast free of the Earth.
After countdown, the rocket is just a rapidly-rising blur of flame and smoke. Image credit: NASA
After a successful detachment from its rocket, the Dragon spread its solar-array wings to chase down the station. It's taking the slow route to the station, slowly gaining over two days until coming within reach of the Canadarm at 7:04 am Eastern Time on Tuesday morning. When it's close, the robotic arm will reach out to snatch the capsule in close. This is the fourth Dragon mission to make a cargo run for astronauts.
The Dragon is carrying bits and pieces to finalize for 255 research projects, covering everything from tracking the Earth's winds to investigating electroplating in microgravity.
The Dragon capsule balanced atop the Falcon 9 on the launchpad. Image credit: SpaceX
The payload includes ISS-RapidScat, the first instrument specifically designed to be mounted on the International Space Station and watch the Earth. It will use low-energy microwaves to monitor the Earth's winds over the ocean, improving hurricane tracking. The entire project was built in just 18 months, adapting hardware from the 1990s to reduce cost, hitching a ride in free space on the Dragon capsule, and fitting into an open, available mounting point.
Falcon 9, fuelled up with a mix of refined kerosene and liquid oxygen, another step in the checklist to launch. Image credit: SpaceX
Dragon is also carrying a pair of living experiments. Arabidopsis thaliana seedlings, a simple flowering plant related to cabbage, are growing inside canisters where wind, weight, and other forces.
The Rodent Habitat module is a home away from Earth for the moustronauts. Image credit: NASA
But more excitingly, for the first time Dragon is carrying live mammals as part of Rodent Research-1. A cadet of moustronauts will be taking up residence on the station. They'll be participating in experiments tracking bone density degradation in microgravity, and the impact of drugs on mitigating that damage.
Falcon 9 blasts off for a pre-dawn launch. Image credit: NASA
The payload also includes the first 3D printer to go into space. It'll be tested to see how well it can produce parts on-demand, reducing both the cost and time for bringing cargo to the station. If it works, it'll be invaluable for deep space missions. Either way, the results will hopefully improve terrestrial 3D printing.
If you missed the live feed, you can watch the entire launch here:
NASA recently announced that SpaceX is one of two companies contracted to provide crew transport to the International Space Station. They will be using the next generation of Dragon capsule, the Dragon v2, to complete between two and six crewed missions to the station by 2017.