Launched on 22 May 2012, the automatic Dragon cargo ship belonging to the American company SpaceX docked three days later with the ISS. On 31 May 2012, it splashed down according to plan in the Pacific Ocean, bringing back 620 kg of freight and equipment; a first for a private firm.
Dragon at the end of the Station’s robotic arm on 31 May 2012. The first part of its mission accomplished, the cargo ship was then separated from the ISS and released in orbit so that it could make its way back to Earth. Credit: ESA/NASA
The plan to commercialise the servicing of the International Space Station has just had its first operational success, and this, as of the first complete demonstration mission. Initiated by NASA in 2006 under the auspices of its Administrator at the time, Michael Griffin, the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) programme aims to encourage private companies to develop, and sell to the Agency, a freighter turnkey service to the Station. So that this can be achieved, sums of money are paid when technical milestones are passed. With the successful mission of its Dragon freighter (lofted by a Falcon 9 rocket), SpaceX has demonstrated its expertise and can logically expect to land a 1.6 billion dollar contract with the obligation of making another ten similar flights.
Added bonus: a return to Earth It is true that the Russian, European and Japanese Agencies also have cargo ships, respectively Progress, ATV and HTV, capable of delivering provisions, experiments and freight to the ISS. However, with Dragon, America gains this capacity as part of a commercial contract and, above all, has the added bonus of a return to Earth. In fact, following the success of its docking with the Station (a tricky operation in itself), Dragon was emptied of its 460 kg payload by the astronauts and then refilled with 620 kg of miscellaneous equipment and elements no longer of any use up in space. On 31 May 2012, the ISS’ crew grasped Dragon using the Canadian robotic arm so that it could be released in orbit. Having become independent once again, the spaceship began its return trip and reached the Pacific Ocean by parachuting down into the water at 15:42 Universal Time. See the video below.
The photograph below released by SpaceX shows Dragon floating in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The young company founded by the billionaire Elon Musk has therefore added a cargo service, that of returning freight to Earth.
We would reiterate that since the decommissioning of NASA’s space shuttles, it has not been possible to bring large or bulky equipment back from the orbiting complex: the Progress, ATV and HTV cargo ships are burnt up in the atmosphere at the end of their missions, thus ridding the Station of its “bins”. The Russian manned spaceship, Soyuz, can only bring a very small amount of freight back to our planet in addition to the astronauts that it transports. And yet, scientists need to recover certain experiments so that they can be meticulously examined on the ground in order to refine the results. And, technicians like to work on some of the pieces of equipment that have broken down in order to establish an exact diagnosis which then enables the reliability of future spare parts to be improved. There is no choice but to accept that in this field of bringing freight back from the ISS to Earth, SpaceX has a monopoly that is hardly touched by the Soyuz and its limited cargo space.
On Monday 6 August the Mars rover Curiosity should land on the red planet. From today Enjoy Space and Cité de l’Espace are offering you the chance to follow this event on Twitter, and then by video, direct from the NASA JPL in California!