At 15:42 UTC on May 31, 2012, the SpaceX Dragon capsule came home, splashing down in the Pacific ocean about 800 km (500 miles) southwest of Los Angeles. As I write this, it’s floating in the water and will be picked up via barge in a little while. There’s still much to do, but it’s not too early to declare this mission a big success.
[Artwork courtesy SpaceX]
The splashdown reminded me strongly of the Apollo homecomings. There was live video as the capsule came down, taken in the infrared by chase planes. The three main parachutes could be seen, brightly and broadly striped, just like Apollo’s. And we haven’t seen an ocean splashdown of an American spacecraft since the 1970s!
[UPDATE (19:10 UTC): Battered and a bit burned from re-entry, here's the first picture of Dragon as it floats in the Pacific Ocean waiting to be picked up:
Cooool. Image credit: SpaceX.]
The entire mission lasted about 9 days 8 hours. After launching at 07:44 UTC on May 22, things went nearly flawlessly. The only glitch I can recall is when Dragon was approaching the International Space Station, and the LIDAR — a laser guidance system used during docking — was having a hard time locking onto the docking port. A quick software change fixed that, and Dragon docked with ISS around 14:30 UTC May 25. The astronauts on ISS got busy opening the hatch and unloading the supplies carried from Earth, and reloaded it with waste and equipment to go back — over half a ton of cargo, more than it brought up!
The capsule was undocked during the middle of the night US time on May 31, then pulled away from the ISS by the robotic Canadarm. It backed away from ISS, then burned its rocket motors to change its velocity by about 100 meters/second (roughly 200 mph). This changed the shape of the orbit, dropping the lower part into the Earth’s atmosphere. Before it re-entered, it jettisoned the lower half of the capsule (called the trunk) that had the solar panels attached; that burned up over the Pacific.
A few minutes later, the pressure increased enough to slow Dragon. Once it slowed enough, the parachutes deployed successfully, and it splashed down. For those keeping track at home, the touch-down point was 26.92˚ N by -120.70˚ W.
Why was this mission so important? Read More
Tomorrow morning, Thursday May 31, the SpaceX Dragon capsule will undock from the International Space Station, perform a series of maneuvers, and then come back home to Earth. Over at The Planetary Society Blog, Jason Davis has a great writeup giving the times of the key events.
The preliminary stuff happens in the middle of the night for me in Colorado, but the actual descent to Earth happens at a much more palatable time. At 14:51 UTC (10:51 a.m. Eastern US time) the Dragon will begin the deorbit burn, dropping it lower in orbit. Less than an hour later, at 15:44 UTC it is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific ocean about 900 km (540 miles) off the coast of Los Angeles in California.
At 16:02 UTC, Friday, May 25, 2012, the SpaceX Dragon officially became the first privately-owned commercial spacecraft to be captured by and berthed at the International Space Station. It is (if I’ve done the math correctly) the 114th spacecraft to dock with ISS, including the missions sent up to build the station. It is the first privately-owned commercial spacecraft in history to do so.
You can read more about this in my last post, which also has a few pictures from the approach and capture.
Congratulations to NASA and the team at SpaceX! Fantastic.
[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.]
Just a quick update: a new series of pictures of the Dragon capsule as seen by astronauts aboard the International Space Station has just been released, and they’re way cool. Here’s one:
[Click to embiggen.]
Earlier today, Dragon passed just 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the station, performing a series of tasks to make sure it was ready to dock with ISS tomorrow. I’m sure the folks at SpaceX are poring over these images to make sure their capsule’s OK. And of course, tomorrow we’ll get even more dramatic images and video!
Image credit: NASA
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
At 07:44 UTC, May 22, 2012, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into space, carrying the Dragon capsule into orbit.
So first, holy wow, and yay! That’s fantastic news! This was the second attempt, after a glitchy valve caused a launch abort a few days ago.
This morning’s launch went very smoothly. After achieving orbit, the uncrewed Dragon craft decoupled from the rocket and successfully deployed its solar panels, a key milestone in the mission. When that happened, the cheering from the SpaceX team could be heard in the webcast background, which was delightful. A lot of people on Twitter commented on how NASA’s narration of the event was very stoic and calm, but the SpaceX webcast was very emotional and involved*. I think both of those are as they should be!
Here’s a short video of the launch:
The entire SpaceX webcast is also online. The key moments are the launch at 44:30 into the video, main engine cutoff and start of the second stage at 47:30, the rocket achieving orbit and Dragon capsule separation at 54:00, and then the solar arrays deploying at 56:20.
Seriously, watch that video at the 56:20 mark. When the arrays deploy, you can hear a huge cheer from the SpaceX employees watching. That was awesome. The SpaceX announcer at deployment made me smile. You can really hear the wonder and excitement in her voice.
So why was this launch important? SpaceX is the first entirely private company to attempt to dock a capsule with the International Space Station. If this mission is a success, it’s a big step toward private companies being able to do resupply missions to ISS, including bringing astronauts to and from orbit (which SpaceX plans to be able to do by 2015). And perhaps most importantly, in the long run it means lowering the cost of putting materials in orbit, and that is absolutely critical in creating a permanent human presence in space.
This launch today is just the start of the mission. On Friday, May 25, the Dragon will undergo a series of maneuvers near and around ISS to show that it can be controlled well enough to dock. If that shakes out, then it will approach the station and an astronaut on board ISS will grab it with the robotic arm, bringing it in to mate. There are supplies on the capsule, including a dozen or so student science experiments to be performed. Finally, after over a week in space, it will undock and return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific ocean off the coast of California.
We’ve all been waiting a long, long time for this, so my honest and hearty congratulations to the crew at SpaceX and at NASA!
We live in the future, folks.
Image credit: SpaceX
* I also couldn’t help but notice they use the metric system! Hey NASA, ahem.
- SpaceX launch aborted; next attempt Tuesday
- Space X set to launch on Saturday May 19
- Will ATK beat everyone into space?
- Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it
The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 this morning was aborted at literally the last second — the sensors detected too high a pressure in a combustion chamber in one of the engines. Apparently this didn’t put the rocket in any danger, but it was outside the limits for an allowable launch so the computer shut things down.
[UPDATE: SpaceX is reporting a faulty valve caused the issue, and it's being replaced. They should be ready for the Tuesday launch window.]
Here’s video of the last few seconds of the countdown.
Ouch. My thoughts on this are pretty clear: it’s a bummer, but then again that’s all it is. Not a disaster, not a failure, just a setback. These are complicated, complex machines, and delays are inevitable.
The good news is there’s a backup launch date of Tuesday, May 22, at 07:44 UTC (03:44 Eastern US time), and another the next day, May 23, at 07:22 UTC. Hopefully, this glitch can be fixed and the rocket launched on one of those dates.
I’m overwhelmed with work right now prepping for a half dozen different things, but I had to make some comment on a press release I just got in the mail.
Here’s the important bit [emphasis mine]:
Join visionary Peter H. Diamandis, M.D.; leading commercial space entrepreneur Eric Anderson; former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki; and planetary scientist & veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones, Ph.D. on Tuesday, April 24 at 10:30 a.m. PDT in Seattle, or via webcast, as they unveil a new space venture with a mission to help ensure humanity’s prosperity.
Supported by an impressive investor and advisor group, including Google’s Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ph.D.; film maker & explorer James Cameron; Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Microsoft’s former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, Ph.D.; Founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram; and Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group Ross Perot, Jr., the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.
Well now, what could that mean? What natural resources are there in space? Solar energy might count, but I have a strong suspicion what they’re really talking about is asteroid mining.
Yes, you heard me. Let me be VERY clear: I’m speculating here. I have no more info on this than what I’ve quoted there, but it fits what the release says. Peter Diamandis is a big thinker, to put it mildly. His Wikipedia page should give you a taste of that. Asteroid mining is big enough for him to be interested in it! And heck, he said as much in his TED talk.
The engineering behind it would be fearsome. We’re a ways out from being able to do this, but if we had a big rocket — say SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy (though I don’t see any SpaceX folks listed in the release) — then getting an operation to a near-Earth asteroid is feasible. Even a rocky asteroid would have metals in it, and we can pick in advance one that has a higher abundance of metals. And like I said in my TED talk, we can move asteroids around if we’re patient.
If I were being optimistic, I might say something like this could get off the ground in 20 years or so, depending on several variables, and maybe sooner. Let me be frank: I don’t think this is a crazy idea.
This’ll take a lot of money… but he seems to have some fairly wealthy people — billionaires, and more than one — affiliated with this. So whatever idea he’s got, he’s being backed very seriously for it.
I have lots of other thoughts on this, but I think I’ll hold them back for now due to lack of info. The press release says the group is planning on making the announcement on Tuesday, April 24 at 10:30 a.m. PDT. It’ll be webcast, and I’ll post more info when I get it.
[UPDATE: Heh. MIT's Technology Review came to the same conclusion.]
Image credit: ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team. MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, was interviewed on "60 Minutes". It’s an interesting look inside the company and how Musk wants to build America’s go-to rocket:
I think SpaceX has what it takes to go the whole way. The reporter points out that the first three launches of the Falcon 1 didn’t achieve orbit, but if you look back to the beginning of the Space Era, failures were a lot more catastrophic. A lot has been learned since then.
I’ve made this point many, many times. NASA’s job is to innovate, to explore, and to pave the way. Once that pathway is clear, let smaller, more flexible companies like SpaceX then build the rockets and other hardware needed to maintain that path. It doesn’t have to be SpaceX — there are other companies looking to build rockets capable of getting into orbit — I just think they are best-positioned for this. And in this case, I think competition isn’t such a bad thing. It’ll lead to better rockets, less expensive access to space, and — and this is something I honestly believe, backed by copious evidence — a better future for everyone.
[UPDATE: Oh, fer Pete's sake, I forgot to add that the next flight of the Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station is now scheduled for April 30 at 12:22 p.m. EDT. I'll have more on that soon.]