Dodging persistent thunderstorms that have beseiged Florida most of the summer, a Falcon 9 rocket soared into space overnight and sucessfully delivered a cargo-laden Dragon spacecraft in low Earth orbit to begin SpaceX’s fourth resupply mission to the International Space Station. Delayed a day by bad weather, the 208 foot tall pencil-like rocket blasted off at 1:52 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Loaded with two and a half tons of experiments, supplies and hardware headed for the space station, the vehicle raced through a break in the clouds powered by the 1.3 million pounds of combined thrust of its nine Merlin 1D first stage engines.
Two minutes and 41 seconds after launch, the first stage shut down and separated to leave the single Merlin engine of the second stage to to complete the climb to orbit. The Dragon capsule separated from the rocket 10 minutes, 15 seconds after launch, deployed its solar arrays and began a two-day race to catch up and rendezvous with ISS.
“This launch kicks off a very busy time for the space station,” said NASA’s Sam Scimemi, director of the International Space Station, noting upcoming launches of a Soyuz carrying the next crew of the station and launches of cargo spacecraft within a month.
“There’s nothing like a good launch, it’s just fantastic,” said Hans Koenigsman, vice president of Mission Assurance for SpaceX. “From what I can tell, everything went perfectly.”
After it separated from the upper stage, the Falcon first stage re-lit its engines and conducted a series of maneuvers designed to make a controlled landing in the ocean. However, SpaceX had no plans to attempt recovery of the stage and the rocket lifted off without its now characteristic landing legs. Instead, the maneuvers served to further develop techniques that will be utilized in the future to soft-land the first stage on land near the launch site.
The CRS-4 mission is the company’s fourth cargo delivery flight to the space station through a $1.6 billion NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract. Dragon’s cargo will support experiments to be conducted by the crews of space station Expeditions 41 and 42.
Dragon is scheduled to be grappled at 7:04 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 23, by Expedition 41 Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, using the space station’s robotic arm to take hold of the spacecraft. NASA’s Reid Wiseman will support Gerst in a backup position. Dragon is scheduled to depart the space station in mid-October for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, west of Baja California, bringing from the space station almost 3,200 pounds of science, hardware and crew supplies.
One of the new Earth science investigations heading to the orbital laboratory is the International Space Station-Rapid Scatterometer. ISS-RapidScat monitors ocean winds from the vantage point of the space station. This space-based scatterometer is a remote sensing instrument that uses radar pulses reflected from the ocean’s surface from different angles to calculate surface wind speed and direction. This information will be useful for weather forecasting and hurricane monitoring.
Dragon also will deliver the first-ever 3-D printer in space. The technology enables parts to be manufactured quickly and cheaply in space, instead of waiting for the next cargo resupply vehicle delivery. The research team also will gain valuable insight into improving 3-D printing technology on Earth by demonstrating it in microgravity.
ISS-RapidScat will monitor ocean winds from the vantage point of the space station. This space-based scatterometer, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, is a remote sensing instrument that uses radar pulses reflected from the ocean’s surface from different angles to calculate surface wind speed and direction. This information will be useful for weather and marine forecasting and hurricane monitoring.
“We’ll be able to see how wind speed changes with the time of day,” said Ernesto Rodríguez, principal investigator for ISS-RapidScat at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “ISS-RapidScat will link together all previous and current scatterometer missions, providing us with a more complete picture of how ocean winds change. Combined with data from the European ASCAT scatterometer mission, we’ll be able to observe 90 percent of Earth’s surface at least once a day, and in many places, several times a day.”
ISS-RapidScat’s berth on the space station will put it in an orbit that is unique from any other wind measuring instrument currently in orbit. This vantage point will give scientists the first near-global direct observations of how ocean winds vary over the course of the day due to solar heating. The new mission will also provide cross-calibration of the international constellation of ocean wind satellites, extending the continuity and usefulness of the scatterometer data record.
Approximately nine days after berthing with the station, the RapidScat instrument and its nadir adapter, which orients the instrument to point down at Earth, will be robotically installed on the External Payload Facility SDX site of the Columbus module over a three-day period by the station’s robotic arm, which is controlled by ground controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. ISS-RapidScat is an autonomous payload, requiring no interaction from station astronauts.
Using a different end effector, the station’s robotic arm will first extract RapidScat’s nadir adapter from the trunk of the Dragon and install it on an external site on the Columbus module. The arm will then pluck the RapidScat instrument assembly from the Dragon’s trunk and attach it to the nadir adapter, completing the installation. Each of the two operations will take about six hours.
Once installed, RapidScat will be activated over a period of three days. Checkout of RapidScat will be completed approximately two weeks after installation. About two weeks of preliminary calibration and validation will then follow. RapidScat will then be ready to begin its two-year science mission.
New biomedical hardware launched aboard the spacecraft will help facilitate prolonged biological studies in microgravity. The Rodent Research Hardware and Operations Validation (Rodent Research-1) investigation provides a platform for long-duration rodent experiments in space. These investigations examine how microgravity affects animals, providing information relevant to human spaceflight, discoveries in basic biology and knowledge that may have direct impact toward human health on Earth.
The Dragon spacecraft will also transport other biological research, include a new plant study. The Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC) hardware has supported a variety of plant growth experiments aboard the space station. The BRIC-19 investigation will focus on the growth and development in microgravity of Arabidopsis thaliana seedlings, a small flowering plant related to cabbage. Because plant development on Earth is impacted by mechanical forces such as wind or a plant’s own weight, researchers hope to improve understanding of how the growth responses of plants are altered by the absence of these forces when grown in microgravity.
The Rodent Research Hardware and Operations Validation (Rodent Research-1) investigation provides a platform for long-duration rodent experiments in space. These experiments examine how microgravity affects animals, providing information relevant to human spaceflight, discoveries in basic biology and knowledge that may have direct impact toward human health on Earth. Rodent Research-1 tests the operational capabilities of the new hardware system, including the transporter, rodent habitat and access unit.
Because rodents experience developmental stages and aging processes more quickly than humans, they make ideal research model organisms to infer information about disease development and progression in humans. Model organisms are non-human species with characteristics that allow them easily to be maintained, reproduced and studied in a laboratory. Learn more about rodent research in microgravity in this video.
“In the coming years, rodent studies conducted aboard the space station will gather foundational data that will help advance human space exploration and provide new opportunities to improve quality of life on Earth,” said Ruth Globus, Ph.D., Rodent Research Project scientist and researcher in the Space Biosciences Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
In addition to Earth and biological science studies, several new technology demonstrations are making their way to the space station. One of those, known as the Special Purpose Inexpensive Satellite, or SpinSat, will test how a small satellite moves and positions itself in space using new thruster technology. It will launch into orbit from the space station through the new Cyclops small satellite deployer, also known as the Space Station Integrated Kinetic Launcher for Orbital Payload Systems (SSIKLOPS). Learn more about Cyclops in this video.
SpinSat is a spherical satellite measuring 22 inches in diameter. It will test advanced thruster technology that uses a new class of non-pyrotechnic materials known as Electrically-Controlled Solid Propellants (ESP). ESPs are ignited only by electric current.
Researchers can use high-resolution atmospheric data captured by SpinSat to determine the density of the thermosphere, one of the uppermost layers of the atmosphere. With better knowledge of the thermosphere, engineers and scientists can refine satellite and telecommunications technology.
The 3-D Printing In Zero-G Technology Demonstration (3-D Printing In Zero-G), led out of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, provided a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award to Made In Space Inc. to build the first 3-D printer for operation in microgravity. It is scheduled to launch to the station aboard the SpaceX-4 resupply mission.
Long-term missions would benefit greatly from onboard manufacturing capabilities. Data and experience gathered in this demonstration will improve future 3-D manufacturing technology and equipment for the space program, allowing a greater degree of autonomy and flexibility for astronauts.
“I remember when the tip broke off a tool during a mission,” recalls NASA astronaut TJ Creamer, who flew aboard the space station during Expedition 22/23 from December 2009 to June 2010. “I had to wait for the next shuttle to come up to bring me a new one. Now, rather than wait for a resupply ship to bring me a new tool, in the future, I could just print it.”
“NASA is great at planning for component failures and contingencies; however, there’s always the potential for unknown scenarios that you couldn’t possibly think of ahead of time,” said Ken Cooper, the principal investigator at Marshall for 3-D printing. “That’s where a 3-D printer in space can pay off. While the first experiment is designed to test the 3-D printing process in microgravity, it is the first step in sustaining longer missions beyond low-Earth orbit.”
Lessons learned from this 3-D demonstration will be used for the next generation printer known as the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF). The AMF will be a commercial printer that will enable not only NASA to print needed parts, but will also set a precedent as the first facility ever to provide anyone on Earth – including academia and industry from around the world – the opportunity to manufacture parts in space.
The program has spurred a stellar K-12 educational outreach initiative coined Future Engineers. Future Engineers announced the first 3-D Printing Challenge at the recent White House Maker Faire, which will allow students to design items that could be selected for print on the station.
Visit http://www.nasa.gov/spacex to learn more about the SpaceX CRS-4 mission.
For more information about the International Space Station, visit http://www.nasa.gov/station.
For more information on Earth science activities aboard the space station, visit http://www.nasa.gov/issearthscience.