Last night, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket on the company’s 20th cargo mission to the International Space Station, sending over 4,500 pounds of supplies and scientific experiments to the three crew members who live in orbit. After takeoff, SpaceX then landed its Falcon 9 on a drone ship in the Atlantic, the overall 50th rocket landing for the company.
Although it was a fairly ordinary launch for the company, it was also significant: the final supply mission for NASA under the original SpaceX contract with the space agency. This does not mean that SpaceX will be done by launching supplies to the ISS, however. In 2016, NASA awarded SpaceX a second contract to continue launching cargo missions to the station until 2024. And once this new round of launches has started, SpaceX hardware will also receive an update. The company has long used its Dragon 1 cargo capsule to transport all supplies to the ISS, but SpaceX will now start using its new Dragon 2 capsule.
This new Dragon capsule is very similar to the one that SpaceX will use to send people to the space station later this year. It is slightly larger than its predecessor, capable of carrying around 20 percent more volume than before and can be reused up to five times in space. Each Dragon 1 spacecraft can only be used up to three times. In addition, it features some updates, including a completely new parachute system. “We learned a lot about the Dragon 1 spacecraft,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of construction and flight reliability, during a press conference ahead of the launch. “We put all the lessons learned substantially in Dragon 2 as much as possible.”
Perhaps the biggest news about Dragon 2 is that it will be able to dock on its own with the International Space Station. All previous Dragon cargo capsules needed help getting to the ISS. Each vehicle approached the station and an astronaut on board had to catch the capsule with a robotic arm. The arm would then bring the dragon closer to the ISS and connect it to a docking port. But from now on, both versions of Dragon and crew will be able to approach the station and dock on their own, freeing up time for astronauts aboard the ISS.
SpaceX is expected to fly this new Dragon capsule in the fall. Meanwhile, the latest Dragon 1 launched last night is in orbit around the Earth and will meet with the International Space Station early Monday morning. When connected to the ISS, it will bring various supplies and experiments, including a system for studying organs on microchips. Dragon is also bringing a new European platform that will be connected outside the ISS, allowing research institutes and companies to connect their payloads outside the station.
This dragon will remain attached to the ISS for about a month before returning to Earth. When it leaves, it will be loaded with 4,000 pounds of cargo to be brought back to the ground. After the vehicle crashes into the ocean, the Dragon 1 era will be over. “Dragon 1 has had a great career and we are really proud of how it contributed to the important science aboard the ISS,” said Koenigsmann. In fact, SpaceX’s Dragon made history in 2012, becoming the first private vehicle to attack the ISS ever.
“We are grateful to NASA for ongoing support and look forward to continuing Dragon’s success,” said Koenigsmann.