Space X's Dragon spacecraft has splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean at 3:05 PM EDT on May 18, laden with many scientific experiments ripe for further analysis on Earth. It landed safely 300 miles (480 km) off the coast of California, pending retrieval and transportation back to the SpaceX McGregor test facility in Texas.
The start of the third official cargo mission undertaken by the commercial enterprise was anything but smooth. It took four attempts for the Falcon 9 rocket to lift the spacecraft free of Earth's atmosphere, with consecutive launches cancelled for a number of reasons including a leaky helium valve and a contaminant detected in the cargo area. Finally arriving at the station on April 20, the Dragon delivered 2.5 tons (5,512 lb) of supplies to the crew of the International Space Station (ISS). Following the transfer of supplies, astronauts then loaded the experiments back onto the Dragon, ready for its Earth-bound journey.
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The Dragon detached from the Canadarm2 robotic arm of the ISS at 9:26 AM EDT on May 18, loaded with 150 science experiments weighing in at 1.59 tons (3,505 lb).
Following a series of burns designed to place the supply ship at a safe distance from the ISS, the Dragon began the process of returning home, initiating its final de-orbit burn at 2:08 PM ET. From this point on, the Dragon was on a descent course through the Earth's atmosphere, with the spacecraft finally coming to rest in the Pacific Ocean at 3:05 PM ET.
The experiments carried back with the Dragon may have far reaching implications for long term manned space flight. For example, one experiment focuses on the effect of microgravity on the human immune system in an attempt to determine whether long term exposure could suppress an individual's ability to fight infection or injury while in space.
"The space station is our springboard to deep space and the science samples returned to Earth are critical to improving our knowledge of how space affects humans who live and work there for long durations," stated associate administrator for human exploration and operations William Gerstenmaier. "Now that Dragon has returned, scientists can complete their analyses, so we can see how results may impact future human space exploration or provide direct benefits to people on Earth."
Further experiments included a study on the effects of antibiotics in microgravity, the results of which have the potential to greatly impact the understanding and development of these restorative drugs on Earth. These are only brief examples of a wide range of innovative research projects returned from the ISS.
The Dragon CR-3 mission was the third of twelve resupply missions slated to take place under the current Commercial Resupply Services Contract signed between SpaceX and NASA, with the next due for launch during or after August 2014.
The video below captures the Dragon CRS-3 docking with the ISS.