Despite yet another delay in the launch of their first-ever deep space mission, SpaceX still had reason to celebrate today. After a month attached to the International Space Station, the SpaceX Dragon capsule returned to Earth, splashing down with a load of scientific supplies.
Top image: The Dragon in position for release. Credit: NASA/ESA/Sam Cristoforetti
Cristoforetti successfully released the Dragon spacecraft from the Canadarm's hold, while Virts watched on as a backup-controller. Image credit: NASA
Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Terry Virts detached the jumper cables and depressurized the vestibule between the Harmony module and the Dragon. After ground controllers use the Canadarm to pluck the spacecraft from the space station, Astronaut Sam Cristoforetti commanded the release the capsule at 2:10 p.m. EST. The spacecraft then made three departure burns to wriggle out of the 200-meter protective sphere around the space station, then started its deorbiting burn at 6:49 p.m. EST.
The capsule splashed down on schedule at 7:44 pm EST off the coast of Baja California in the Pacific Ocean. It was recovered onto a 45-meter (150-foot) barge by a 4-person SpaceX dive team. This marks the end of the fifth commercial resupply mission by SpaceX for NASA a total 12 missions contracted to the International Space Station.
The Dragon space capsule aboard ship roughly 426 kilometers (265 miles) southwest of San Diego. Image credit: SpaceX
The Dragon is the only space freighter capable of reentry, making it the only ride for returning materials to the surface. The Dragon brought nearly 1,700 kilograms (3,700 pounds) of cargo back to Earth, including completed scientific materials. Amongst other projects, the cargo includes a crystal growth experiment developed by students in Kamloops, British Columbia that was a replacement for their original project lost in the Antares rocket explosion in October.
The launch of this Dragon capsule was marked by a flashy secondary mission: SpaceX's first attempt at soft landing their Falcon 9 reusable rocket on an autonomous drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. While the rocket reached the barge, the landing was more "explosive" than "soft." SpaceX in planning a second attempt at landing their Falcon 9 rocket on a barge as a secondary mission to the launch of the DSCOVR satellite. So far, the launch attempt has been delayed by three days.
The Dragon loaded with supplies and ready to come home. Image credit: NASA
Elsewhere on the station, NASA astronauts Wilmore and Virts started organizing tools in advance of the three spacewalks starting on February 20th, while the Russian cosmonauts continued to pack the Progress 57 cargo tug with trash for release and destructive reentry later this month.
The Dragon shortly after being freed from the International Space Station on February 10, 2015. Image credit: NASA/Roscosmos/Anton Shkaplerov