SpaceX launches Dragon cargo ship to deliver new solar arrays to space station

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule climb into space from Florida on Saturday. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

SpaceX launched an all-new Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule Saturday from Kennedy Space Center on a mission to deliver new roll-out solar arrays, belated Thanksgiving treats, CubeSats, and a cornucopia of experiments to the International Space Station.

The 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket thundered to life and lifted off from pad 39A at 2:20:43 p.m. EST (1920:43 GMT). The commercial launcher broke the sound barrier in less than a minute as it arced northeast from Florida’s Space Coast, lining up with the orbital plane of the space station.

The launch was timed for roughly the moment Earth’s rotation brought the launch site under the space station’s orbital path, setting up for a docking of the Dragon cargo capsule at the complex at 7:30 a.m. EST (1230 GMT) Sunday.

The mission took off powered by a brand new Falcon 9 first stage booster — tail number B1076 in SpaceX’s fleet — that fired for two-and-a-half minutes to propel the Dragon spacecraft into the upper atmosphere. The Dragon capsule itself was also a new vehicle — designated Dragon C211 — the third and final planned Cargo Dragon in SpaceX’s fleet of new-generation Dragon spaceships.

SpaceX has four human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft in its inventory, and last week the company announced it will build one more Crew Dragon for astronaut missions beginning in 2024.

The booster stage re-entered the atmosphere and landed on a football field-sized drone ship about 200 miles (300 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral, completing its first trip to space. The Falcon 9’s upper stage gave the Dragon cargo ship enough velocity to enter low Earth orbit, setting up for separation of the supply freighter from its launch vehicle nearly 12 minutes into the mission.

On-board camera views showed the Dragon spacecraft flying away from its rocket, then firing Draco thrusters to prime its propulsion system for a series of engine burns to match orbits with the space station. The cargo ship then opened its nose cone to reveal a docking mechanism and navigation sensors needed for the rendezvous and docking with the orbiting complex Sunday.

SpaceX called off the first launch attempt for the resupply mission Tuesday due to rainfall and cloud cover at the Florida spaceport. The Falcon 9 rocket remained on the launch pad at Kennedy to await the next launch opportunity Saturday. SpaceX was unable to launch the cargo mission around the Thanksgiving holiday, a period of busy travel in the United States, because the Federal Aviation Administration wanted to ensure airspace is clear for commercial airline traffic.

After docking Sunday, astronauts on the space station will open hatches and begin unpacking cargo inside the pressurized compartment of the Dragon spacecraft.

Among the food inside: Ice cream, spicy green beans, cranapple desserts, almond pumpkin pie, and candy corn for a belated Thanksgiving feast.

The mission is SpaceX’s 26th Dragon cargo flight under a series of multibillion-dollar Commercial Resupply Services contracts with NASA. It’s the sixth SpaceX cargo mission under the most recent CRS contract, which carries the Dragon cargo program through the CRS-35 mission slated for some time in 2026.

The CRS-26 mission is packed with about 7,700 pounds (3.5 metric tons) of hardware, supplies, and experiments for the space station and the seven-person crew living on-board the complex. The largest element of the cargo load is NASA’s second pair of new roll-out solar arrays to augment the space station’s power system.

The cargo on the CRS-26 mission includes clothing, food and sanitary items for for the space station crew, plus a slew of experiments, including a demonstration aimed at growing dwarf tomatoes on the orbiting laboratory. Previous plant growth experiments, part of the “Veggie” series of science investigations, have focused on growing leafy green vegetables to provide astronauts with a source of fresh food. The experiments also gather data for future expeditions into deep space, such as flights to the moon and Mars, where astronauts could grown their own food.

“We are testing tomatoes, looking at the impacts of light spectrum on how well the crop grows, how delicious and nutritious the tomatoes are, and the microbial activity on the fruit and plants,” says Gioia Massa, NASA life sciences project scientist and principal investigator for the tomato experiments, called Veg-05. “We also are examining the overall effect of growing, tending, and eating crops on crew behavioral health. All of this will provide valuable data for future space exploration.”

The CRS-26 mission will also deliver Moon Microscope, a kit that includes a portable hand-held microscope that can help astronauts collect medical-grade imagery of their own blood samples, then send the data to the ground for analysis by flight surgeons. The mission also carries a tech demo experiment called Extrusion that will test how liquid resin in microgravity can create shapes and forms impossible to make on Earth, due to the influence of gravity. “The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment,” NASA says.

Another experiment on the CRS-26 mission will study how yogurt, fermented milk, and a yeast-based beverage could be used to produce nutrients to maintain crew health on long-duration space missions.

Eight small CubeSats are stowed inside the Dragon spacecraft for NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and companies in Italy and Taiwan. The CubeSats will be transferred by the space station crew to the Japanese airlock for release into low Earth orbit with a Nanoracks deployer.

SpaceX’s 26th resupply mission is also hauling exercise equipment, life support hardware, and a new integrated GPS and inertial navigation system unit to the 450-ton research outpost. The Dragon spacecraft’s rear cargo bay holds the two roll-out solar arrays to be installed outside the space station.

“Of critical importance to us is the two new solar arrays that we’ll be doing spacewalks at the end of November and early December to install and deploy on-board the International Space Station,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s ISS program manager. “In addition to the two solar arrays that are to be delivered on SpaceX-26, we have some life support equipment being delivered, some GPS hardware, some exercise hardware, and some medical equipment. This mission will say docked to the International Space Station about 45 days … All in all, we’re looking forward to an exciting mission.”

While crew members inside the space station unpack cargo from the Dragon’s internal cabin, the station’s Canadian robotic arm will reach into the cargo ship’s trunk to remove the two new solar array units. The arrays are rolled up on spools, and together weigh more than a ton. Two astronauts will venture outside the space station for a pair of spacewalks to assist in the deployment of the new solar arrays.

The first two ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays, or iROSA units, launched in June 2021 on SpaceX’s CRS-22 resupply mission. They were unfurled during a pair of spacewalks later that month on the P6 segment on the port side, or far left end, of the station’s solar power truss. One of the iROSA arrays launching on CRS-26 will go on the port-side P4 truss segment just inboard of the P6 section, while the other solar array will be mounted on the starboard-side S4 truss area.

The iROSA arrays are being extended over six of the the station’s eight existing solar array wings, canted at angles to partially cover the older solar panels. Fully deployed, the roll-out solar arrays stretch 63 feet long and 20 feet wide (19-by-6 meters), about half the length and half the width of the station’s current solar arrays. Despite their smaller size, each of the new arrays will generate about the same amount of electricity as each of the original solar panels.

A mounting bracket plugs the new arrays into the station’s power channels and rotary joints, which keep the solar wings pointed at the sun as the spacecraft races around Earth at more than 17,000 mph. Ahead of the CRS-26 mission, astronauts completed spacewalks to install the mounting brackets to receive the new solar arrays.

The International Space Station has eight power channels, each fed with electrical power generated from one solar array wing extending from the station’s truss backbone. The original solar panels launched on four space shuttle missions from 2000 to 2009. As expected, the solar panel efficiency has degraded over time.

When all six iROSA units are deployed on the station, the power system will be capable of generating 215 kilowatts of electricity to support at least another decade of science operations. The enhancement will also accommodate new commercial modules planned to launch to the space station.

Two ISS Roll-Out Solar Array units inside the Space Station Processing Facility last year at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

Here’s a breakdown of the CRS-26 cargo manifest, provided by NASA:

• Total Cargo: 7,777 pounds (3,528 kilograms)

  • 2,636 pounds (1,196 kilograms) of unpressurized payloads (iROSA)
  • 2,341 pounds (1,062 kilograms) of crew supplies
  • 2,066 pounds (937 kilograms) of science investigations
  • 653 pounds (296 kilograms) of vehicle hardware
  • 55 pounds (25 kilograms) of spacewalk equipment
  • 26 pounds (12 kilograms) of computer resources

The new roll-out solar arrays were developed by Deployable Space Systems in Goleta, California, under contract with Boeing, which oversees space station engineering and maintenance work under a separate contract with NASA. Deployable Space Systems was acquired last year by Redwire, a space infrastructure company based in Jacksonville, Florida.

The solar arrays give the space station one of its most significant mid-life upgrades since NASA and its international partners completed large-scale assembly of the complex in 2011. The six new solar array wings, coupled with 24 new lithium-ion batteries launched to the station on a series of Japanese resupply missions, will help ensure the lab’s power system, can support continued operations through 2030.

The final pair of roll-out solar arrays are scheduled to launch on SpaceX’s CRS-28 cargo mission next year.

At the end of the CRS-26 mission, the reusable Dragon capsule will undock from the station and head for a parachute-assisted splashdown off the coast of Florida in early January with several tons of cargo.

The launch Saturday was the 54th SpaceX mission so far in 2022. SpaceX aims to launch around a half-dozen Falcon 9 rockets from Florida and California by the end of December to reach the company’s goal of 60 missions this year.

The next Falcon 9 launch is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 30, carrying a commercial lunar lander into space for the Japanese company ispace. The privately-developed spacecraft will attempt to become the first commercial mission to make a soft landing on the moon next year.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.