SpaceX Dragon capsule buzzed the space station

By Phil Plait | May 24, 2012 10:43 am

Early this morning, the SpaceX Dragon capsule passed just 2.4 kilometers below the International Space Station, completing another critical step in its mission profile that’ll lead to it docking with the orbiting station Friday morning.

From the station, astronauts captured video as the capsule cruised by:

[You may need to refresh this page to see the video load.]

Very, very cool. You can see the Dragon capsule in this video frame grab: it’s in the lower left corner, silhouetted against the Earth. The extended solar panels are obvious, and you can just make out the shape of the capsule itself.

This flyby was an important milestone, since it showed that the capsule could approach the station and also abort the approach if needed. Other key elements it demonstrated were that it could float freely (as it will have to when it docks with ISS), that its proximity sensors worked, and that its GPS was operational as well. Astronauts on the ISS were also able to command a strobe light remotely, confirming they could link to the capsule.

All this leads up to the big show on Friday: docking. At about 09:00 UTC (05:00 Eastern US time), NASA will decide if the capsule is ready to approach. If so, over the course of an hour or two it will come with 250 meters of the station. It will then perform some last maneuvers to prove it’s ready to go, and then it will make its final approach.

Then, around 13:00 UTC, it will come within just a few meters of ISS, and astronauts on board will grab it with the robotic arm, bringing it in to mate. After that, there will be quite a few checks done which will take some time, leading up to the hatch being opened Saturday morning, scheduled to happen around 11:00 UTC.

All the fun stuff so far has been happening in the middle of the night for me in Boulder, but the approach tomorrow morning isn’t too bad. I’ll get up a little early to watch it live (06:00? We’ll see). I’ll live-tweet the events as they happen.

This is all very exciting! The capsule has been performing essentially flawlessly since launch, so I have high hopes for the next few days.

Image credit: NASA

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Space X set to launch on Saturday May 19

MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Comments (17)

  1. B

    Very cool. The future is private enterprise using conventional technology and vastly improved efficiency to chip away at the cost of space travel. Not long before we see $500 per pound of payload.

  2. You’re right when you say it’s super exciting. I feel like we should be having parties and stuff, but maybe I’ll wait until it docks successfully.

    This feels like a big first step towards an awesome future.

  3. Steve (treelobsters)

    I was watching this on NASA TV while I was getting ready for work this morning. I don’t think I’ve ever been so interested in watching a dot move slowly across a pale blue background. :-) I’ll probably wake up early Saturday morning and try to catch the docking too.

  4. Mark

    Did NASA require all this “proof” with the Russian Progress spacecraft? If not, why not?

  5. Tribeca Mike

    Please excuse my naivety (or ignorance or what have you), but can it truthfully be called a “spacecraft,” as most articles I’ve seen about this project have labeled it?

  6. pt33

    It’s a ‘craft’, it’s in ‘space’, so…’spacecraft’ works for me!

  7. Ferris Valyn

    Tribeca – yes, Dragon is indeed a spacecraft – it operates in space, and maneuvers, which is in itself enough to constitute a spacecraft. However, even more powerful is that its really a transportation vehicle (whether cargo or crew), rather than something like a satellite, which goes to a point and then operates for a long period of time

  8. Paul

    #4: the Russians had flight experience docking their unmanned vehicles with MIR and earlier space stations.

  9. Tribeca Mike

    Thanks for the info, pt33 and Ferris Valyn.

  10. Brian B

    What does “float freely” mean in an orbital setting? How is that different from orbiting, an activity that is essentially a circular free-fall?

  11. Satan Claws
  12. Elon Musk has taken up the baton from Steve Jobs.

    Jobs lead the way into the future by effectively inventing personal computing and re-inventing the music, movie and cell phone industries. Musk has taken that computer legacy and is using it to re-invent the automobile industry, the renewable energy industry and here, the commercial space industry.

    Musk is in his early 40s. I’m in my late 50s and wondering what the hell I’ve been doing for the past twenty years!

    Hold onto hats – the Mid-21st Century is coming up fast.

  13. Carbon

    Notice that the video cut out BEFORE the Cylon Base Ship jumped into frame. Pray for our brave astronauts.

  14. Mike

    I get a special feeling in the secret parts watching this video.

  15. Tribeca Mike

    Satan Claws – Portal 2? I’m still trying to navigate my way though the vines in Space Quest II.


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