SpaceX launches Dragon cargo ship to space station

A long-exposure from the beach at Cape Canaveral captures the first-stage and second-stage burns, plus the entry and landing burns of the first-stage. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now.

Lighting up the night sky, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket streaked into orbit in spectacular fashion Thursday, kicking off a 32-hour rendezvous with the International Space Station to deliver 6,500 pounds of research gear, crew supplies and needed equipment.

Also on board: fresh fruit, cheese and pizza kits and “some fun holiday treats for the crew, like chocolate, pumpkin spice cappuccino, rice cakes, turkey, duck, quail, seafood, cranberry sauce and mochi,” said Dana Weigel, deputy space station program manager at the Johnson Space Center.

Liftoff from historic pad 39 at the Kennedy Space Center came at 8:28 p.m. EDT, roughly the moment Earth’s rotation carried the pad directly into the plane of the space station’s orbit. That’s a requirement for rendezvous missions with targets moving at more than 17,000 mph.

The climb to space went smoothly, and the Dragon was released to fly on its own about 12 minutes after liftoff. If all goes well, the spacecraft will catch up with the space station Saturday morning and stand by for capture by the lab’s robot arm.

The launching marked SpaceX’s 29th Cargo Dragon flight to the space station and the second mission for capsule C-211. The first stage booster, also making its second flight, flew itself back to the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to chalk up SpaceX’s 39th Florida touchdown and its 243rd overall.

But the primary goal of the flight is to deliver research gear and equipment to the space station.

Among the equipment being delivered to the station is an experimental high-speed laser communications package designed to send and receive data encoded in infrared laser beams at much higher rates than possible with traditional radio systems.

“This is using optical communication to use lower power and smaller hardware for sending data packages back from the space station to Earth that are even larger and faster than our capabilities today,” said Meghan Everett, a senior scientist with the space station program.

A Falcon 9 rocket soars from pad 39A on a space station resupply mission. Image: Adam Bernstein/Spaceflight Now.

“This optical communication could hugely benefit the research that we are already doing on the space station by allowing our scientists to see the data faster, turn results around faster and even help our medical community by sending down medical packets of data.”

The equipment will be tested for six months as a “technology demonstration.” If it works as expected, it may be used as an operational communications link.

Another externally mounted instrument being delivered aboard the Dragon is the Atmospheric Waves Experiment, or AWE. It will capture 68,000 infrared images per day to study gravity waves at the boundary between the discernible atmosphere and space — waves powered by the up-and-down interplay between gravity and buoyancy.

As the waves interact with the ionosphere, “they affect communications, navigation and tracking systems,” said Jeff Forbes, deputy principal investigator at the University of Colorado.

The first stage booster returns to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now.

“AWE will make an important, first pioneering step to measure the waves entering space from the atmosphere. And we hope to be able to link these observations with the weather at higher altitudes in the ionosphere.”

And an experiment carried out inside the station will use 40 rodents to “better understand the combined effects of spaceflight, nutrition and environmental stressors on (female) reproductive health and bone health,” Everett said.

“There was some previous research that suggested there were changes in hormone receptors and endocrine function that negatively impacted female reproductive health,” she said. “So we’re hoping the results of this study can be used to inform female astronaut health during long-duration spaceflight and even female reproductive health here on Earth.”