The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft blasted off for its CRS-3 mission for NASA

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft lifting off on a Falcon 9 rocket (Image NASA TV)
The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft lifting off on a Falcon 9 rocket (Image NASA TV)

A few hours ago the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft blasted off on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in its CRS-3 (Cargo Resupply Service 3) mission, also known as SPX-3. This is the third of 12 missions that include the sending of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station with various cargos and then return to Earth, again with various cargos.

It’s normal for these missions to be delayed for various reasons but the CRS-3 was supposed to start last year. A series of problems on the International Space Station and recently a failure in a U.S. Air Force radar system needed to mission control moved this launch ahead several months. There was the risk of a new delay following the failure of a backup computer on the Station but at NASA mission control they assessed the risk as minimal and gave the OK to the launch.

Meanwhile, compared to the previous mission, the Falcon 9 rocket has been changed a lot so this time they used the 1.1 version already tested last year. For this occasion, the first stage has been equipped with special carbon fiber legs to try a controlled landing. The purpose is to be able to have a soft splash down without damage, so that it can be recycled.

The technology for the controlled descent of the first stage is experimental so the expectations were pretty low but SpaceX announced that the descent into the Atlantic Ocean was successful. Obviously they’ll have to assess the conditions of the first stage but it’s a big step forward.

The Dragon spacecraft is carrying a heavy cargo, a total of around 2.4 tonnes (about 5,000 pounds) between the pressurized and non-pressurized ones. Among the many devices, there is the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS), one of the experimental instruments for communications via high-speed laser, in this case between the ISS and the ground stations. There’s also the High Definition Viewing Earth (HDEV) package, which consists of four HD cameras to be tested in the space environment for shooting of the Earth from various angles. A particular electronic component is a pair of legs for Robonaut 2, an android in the testing phase on the Station that didn’t have them yet.

The cargo of the Dragon spacecraft also includes scientific experiments such as the Veg-01 or Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE), which aims to experiment the growth of lettuce on the International Space Station under LED light. Another biological experiment aims to investigate the causes of depression of the immune system with age and in microgravity.

As a secondary cargo there are some CubeSat satellites. One of them, KickSat, was produced through a crowdfunding campaign and has the aim of launching femtosatellites, which are satellites slightly larger than a postage stamp. The CubeSats were deployed regularly and the KickSat started the deployment of no less than 104 femtosatellites called Sprites.

The Dragon spacecraft is en route to the International Space Station and everything proceeds normally. The arrival is scheduled for tomorrow with the berthing on the Harmony node.

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