Space

SpaceX's Dragon returns to Earth brimming with microgravity research samples

SpaceX's Dragon returns to Ear...
A robotic arm prepares Dragon for departure from the ISS
A robotic arm prepares Dragon for departure from the ISS
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Dragon spacecraft has been shuttling cargo back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2012
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Dragon spacecraft has been shuttling cargo back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2012
Astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year aboard the ISS
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Astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year aboard the ISS
The Dragon spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific ocean
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The Dragon spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific ocean
A robotic arm prepares Dragon for departure from the ISS
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A robotic arm prepares Dragon for departure from the ISS
A robotic arm prepares Dragon for departure from the ISS
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A robotic arm prepares Dragon for departure from the ISS
Astronaut Scott Kelly shows his gratitude
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Astronaut Scott Kelly shows his gratitude
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April 8, 2016 was an important day for space exploration. Not only did SpaceX finally manage to land a Falcon 9 rocket on a barge ship in the ocean, it also welcomed back into service its Dragon spacecraft after a previous flight had ended in a ball of fire. Today, the Dragon completed its round trip to the International Space Station, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean with more than a tonne of valuable scientific samples in tow.

The Dragon spacecraft has been shuttling back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2012, when it became the first commercial ship to deliver cargo to the orbiting laboratory. The CRS-8 mission launched on April 8 saw Dragon loaded up with 6,900 lb (3,130 kg) of cargo, which included an experimental inflatable habitat called BEAM.

The ISS crew waved goodbye to Dragon today, but not before filling it with another 3,700 lb (1,678 kg) of scientific cargo for its return leg. The spacecraft's haul includes research samples from different biology and nanotechnology studies, one of which investigated how microparticles behave in the microgravity environment.

Another study explored how protein crystals grow in microgravity, specifically, the co-crystallization of a membrane protein with a medical compound to observe the resulting three-dimensional structure. Growing protein crystals in the unique microgravity environment can negate some of the complications present when the same process is carried out on Earth, including sedimentation, and NASA says this work could lead to designer compounds that treat several types of cancer.

The Dragon spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific ocean
The Dragon spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific ocean

Dragon also brought with it a suit worn by a spacewalking astronaut and the last of the research samples from astronaut Scott Kelly's year-long stint on the ISS. These include blood, urine and other fluid samples that will shed more light on what happens to the human body when it floats around in space for a long time. Kelly will continue to provide researchers with samples here on the ground as this research continues.

The Dragon spacecraft performed three thruster burns during its descent down to Earth, before deploying its three main parachutes and splashing into the Pacific Ocean at 2:51 pm EDT.

Astronaut Scott Kelly shows his gratitude
Astronaut Scott Kelly shows his gratitude

Source: SpaceX, NASA

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1 comment
bobcat4424
This is something that SpaceX does that is very advanced, but gets very little credit for. They are the only launch service that can bring scientific experiments and broken equipment back to Earth for study/repair. This has already saved NASA millions of dollars. The capsule itself is reusable. But, as an obstacle to be overcome, NASA and the Air Force are contractually mandating sea recovery so that ULA appears competitive. But the Dragon capsule is intended to return to land with "the accuracy of a helicopter."
One thing that is only whispered about around NASA is that in an emergency situation, the current Dragon cargo capsule could be used to bring the entire ISS crew to Earth. It wouldn't be comfortable and some jury-rigging would be required, but it would work.