This morning, SpaceX is set to launch its latest batch of cargo and supplies to the International Space Station, but the company is using a slightly different spacecraft for this flight than resupply missions of the past. SpaceX is flying its newly upgraded Dragon capsule to transport the goods to space — the same vehicle that the company has been using to fly astronauts to the station.
SpaceX has been resupplying the space station since 2012, and for all of its 20 previous missions, the company has used the original version of its Dragon cargo capsule. SpaceX started developing a new Dragon capsule, though, to transport people to and from the ISS. Called Crew Dragon — or Dragon 2 — the vehicle carried its first crew to space in May. With the new version operational, SpaceX decided to discontinue the use of its old Dragon capsule and use the upgraded version to carry both crew and cargo.
The Dragon 2 capsule sports a number of upgrades over its predecessor; SpaceX says it can carry 50 percent more science payloads. The new Dragon is also capable of automatically docking with the space station. The previous version had to be berthed: it would slowly approach the ISS, while a crew member on board the station would use a robotic arm to grab the incoming capsule and move it onto an open docking port. Dragon 2 doesn’t need any help from humans to dock and attach itself to the ISS.
This mission will bring supplies for the station and astronauts, and is also bringing several experiments to the ISS. They include the European Space Agency’s Bioasteroid, which will test how biomining— the process of using microorganisms to extract elements from rocks— is affected by microgravity. The mission also will have the first COVID-19 drug research experiment in space on board, to try to improve the efficiency of antiviral drug remdesivir. Also on board will be Nanorocks’ commercial airlock module— basically a large metal cup that attaches to the exterior of the ISS— designed to get payloads and other materials from inside the pressurized environment of the ISS out into space.
Once this capsule reaches the space station, it won’t be the only Dragon attached to the ISS. On November 15th, SpaceX launched a crew of four to the ISS on another Dragon capsule, which docked with the station a day later. That means there will be two Dragons docked at the ISS after this flight gets off the ground. “It’ll be the first time that there are two Dragons on the space station simultaneously,” Sarah Walker, the director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said during a press conference ahead of the flight. “And it really ushers in a season of continuous Dragon presence for the near future, at least through the end of 2021.”
The mission was rescheduled due to weather concerns but is now slated to launch at 11:17AM ET from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX is using one of its used Falcon 9 rockets for the mission, a vehicle that’s flown three times before. In fact, it’s the same rocket that launched SpaceX’s first crew of two the station in May. After the flight, the Falcon 9 will attempt to land on one of SpaceX’s drone ships in the Atlantic. The Dragon capsule is expected to dock with the ISS on December 7th. You can watch the launch live on SpaceX’s website here.