Dragon is approaching the space station – UPDATED: CAPTURED!

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2012 7:13 am

[UPDATE: ISS has captured the Dragon!

That's not a sim! That's the Dragon capsule held by the ISS robot arm, 30 minutes after capture. See the notes below.]


The SpaceX Dragon capsule is currently on approach to the International Space Station. As I write this (13:00 UTC) it is about 50 meters away and moving in. NASA has a live feed that I am embedding here:

You may need to refresh this page to see it.

Dragon had approached to 30 meters, but a glitch made NASA ask for it to back off to 70 meters. Dragon uses a laser ranging device called LIDAR to determine its position and velocity relative to ISS. It was getting a stray reflection from a structure on ISS that was giving it bad data. The problem was quickly fixed by narrowing he LIDAR’s field of view, excluding the stray reflection. Clever.

Dragon and ISS need to be in daylight for the astronauts to be able to grapple the capsule with the robot arm. That time is currently scheduled for 14:40 UTC (10:40 a.m. Eastern US time).

I will update this post as new info comes in.

[UPDATE 1 (13:22 UTC): Here's a frame grab of the Dragon as it holds 30 meters from ISS. The shadow of one of the station's solar panels is across the capsule. Lovely!]

[UPDATE 2 13:30 UTC): Another pretty shot of the Dragon capsule, this time with part of the station as well. This is a screen grab of the live NASA video stream from 14:30 UTC. Dragon is moving from 30 meters to 10 meters from ISS, where it will once again hold. At that distance, the robot arm will be able to grapple the capsule. It should reach that point around 13:55 UTC.]

[UPDATE 3 (14:38 UTC): NASA expects Dragon will reach 10 meter hold position at 13:45. The first opportunity to grapple it with the robot arm is at 14:02 UTC, which is when the pair will be in the dark. A second opportunity is at 14:28 when they are in daylight once again.]

[UPDATE 4 (13:50 UTC): We are GO for capture! Dragon is 10 meters from ISS, and they will use the robot arm in a few minutes to grapple the capsule. This shot grabbed from the live feed shows Dragon as it holds position off the ISS.]

[UPDATE 5 (13:58 UTC): CAPTURE! At 13:56 UTC history was made as the Canadian robot arm of the International Space Space grappled the SpaceX Dragon capsule, making it the first privately-owned commercial spacecraft to connect with ISS. Congrats to NASA and SpaceX for this wonderful moment. Next step: bring it in and mate it to the docking berth on the Harmony node of ISS.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Comments (32)

  1. Inti

    Give me this over any other live TV event. It’s so exciting.

  2. Chris

    I find listening to the Blue Danube waltz while watching this is soothing.

  3. Oh WOW, this is so exciting.

  4. RAF

    Beautiful, just beautiful!

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    Cheers BA, thanks! Go SpaceX! :-)

    Dragon and ISS need to be in daylight for the astronauts to be able to grapple the capsule with the robot arm.

    Ladies and gentlemen, that blackness you see there – is daylight in space! ;-)

  6. Tilman Baumann

    Chris, I had the same idea.

  7. RAF

    Too often we hear the words “history in the making”, but that is exactly what this is…

  8. Chris

    Love the purple dragon at Mission Operations :-)

  9. Steve

    Cheers to the women in the control room!

  10. PeteC

    I love having a big grin on my face. I now have a big grin on my face. :)

  11. RAF

    Nice “sim”. :)

  12. Chris P

    “We think that simulation went well, we’re ready to give it a go for real.”

    Gotta love Don Pettit :D

  13. Jim Craig

    This is all kinds of awesome.

    Who needs nonsense and woo when we have this?

  14. Chris

    They caught the Dragon by the tail :-D

  15. This officially makes for an incredible day. Honestly, tears in my eyes, and I can’t stop smiling.

  16. Satan Claws

    @Chris P (10): Another Don Pettit quip:
    “Looks like we’ve caught a Dragon by its tail.”

  17. Alex Feldstein

    Awesome! What a way to celebrate Towel Day!

    Elon Musk is a guy who knows where his towel is.

  18. Kevin

    Touchdown, SpaceX! And how cool is the live feed? I should be getting work done right now but can’t bring myself to stop watching.

  19. Malcolm

    After all this time and money, why hasn’t NASA evolved a PR program that doesn’t totally suck? They have dozens of retired astronauts who could do color commentary and millions in cameras beside the ONE security cam in Huston. Science isn’t dead because it’s difficult, it’s dead because it’s boring to the iPod generation!

    Can’t drag me away from it but I cut my baby teeth on a B&W TV with universe static messing with first landing!

  20. Tim

    We have handheld audio/video transmitters which allow us to instantaneously talk to people on the other side of the Earth while riding in our flying cars [terrafugia.com] or travelling on our levitating trains at roughly half the speed of sound. When we are sick, we have machines that can see inside our bodies using light rays or magnetic fields. We have touched the moon and sent robotic ambassadors to the furthest reaches of our solar system. But now, and only now, do I feel like I live in the future.

  21. Wzrd1

    Well, they’ve proved BOTH their rocket systems and control systems quite well!
    Building a rocket that doesn’t turn into a bomb is difficult enough.
    Add to that control systems that aren’t destroyed by the environment of space is an added layer.
    Then, having maneuvering systems that continue to work in space, yet another layer.
    One would think that protecting components would be trivial, but then one thinks, one is going from the broiler to super deep freeze in a second (going from sun to shade). Insulation only is part of the equation, as one then builds up heat…
    Any minor problem is a major problem in the unforgiving, unkind environment of space. As was illustrated by a minor reflection being a potential show stopper with the LIDAR system.
    So, EXCELLENT JOB to all members of the team!

  22. Sheila

    I’m 74 years of age and have never seen anything like this. Incredible.

  23. JMW

    Well, since no other Canadian has bothered to say it yet…gotta love that the shot of the capture is framed just perfectly to show the “Canada” on the arm.

    Yay Canada! Woot!

  24. Thanks for the live feed Phil!

  25. Sheila

    Never seen anything like it in my life!!!! Luv it.

  26. VinceRN

    Woohoo! I think this is one of the most important events in the history of the ISS, probably one of the most important space related events in 40 years.

    Plus it will be added to the list of reasons my birthday is is the coolest possible birthday. (Also Kennedy’s “to the Moon” speech, Star Wars first opening, and Towel Day)

  27. ND

    Oh Caaaanadaaarm (deux) …

  28. dan

    Were proud of you, boys.

  29. Phil

    I literally had tears welling up! Woohoo!

  30. Matt B.

    Um, apparently that embedded video is still live. I’m seeing a bunch of stuff about Curiosity reaching Mars this Sunday-Monday. (And the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passing over Gale Crater just as the other craft lands, which is awesome.)

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