At 12:31 EDT on August 14th, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission, CRS-12, is the twelfth resupply run that SpaceX has mounted to the International Space Station (ISS).
Although the launch marks an even dozen ISS resupply missions for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, it’s arguably the most significant to date. CRS-12 promises to have a huge scientific impact in the years to come, which is fitting for a project that’s transformed the conception of space travel through the innovative recycling of rockets and capsules.
If everything goes according to plan, it’s also the last new Dragon capsule that SpaceX will add to its reusable fleet for resupply missions.
SpaceX’s scientific cargo
The scale of this scientific promise lies in the cargo of the Dragon capsule. Of the 6,400 pounds of supplies destined for the International Space Station, 75 percent has been dedicated to materials for research and experiments.
Over the past 16 years, researchers have lived and worked aboard the International Space Station. One of the key milestones they have achieved is the microgravity laboratory, which provides the setting for research breakthroughs not possible on Earth. It’s hosted more than 1,900 separate investigations to date.
The majority of cargo sent to the International Space Station usually consists of supplies for astronauts – everything from toilet paper to Mexican food. However, this particular mission is set to deliver equipment that will provide the foundations for a broad range of scientific research and experiments in the near future.
Included in the cargo is an AR system designed to help astronauts improve their working efficiency. But much of the equipment being sent is aimed at tackling bigger challenges, from climate change and hereditary diseases, to improving our understanding of the basic structure of the universe.
Included are materials capable of growing crystals of leucine-rich repeat kinase 2, a protein thought to be a major genetic contributor to Parkinson’s disease that can’t be grown effectively on Earth because of gravity. There’s also gear for the Kestrel Eye project, which aims to lower the cost of Earth imagery in emergency situations. It’s hoped that the technology can help to track severe weather and detect natural disasters.
Another part of the cargo is dedicated to measuring cosmic rays, which will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility, collecting data over the next three years that could provide the answers to fundamental questions on the history of the universe.
Drop-offs and returns
Part of the excitement over SpaceX’s NASA contract has been an end to the wastefulness associated with deliveries in space. Used supply capsules have traditionally been allowed to burn up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. The Dragon is one of the only spacecraft in operation designed to be recovered at the end of its mission to the Space Station. This means it can bring back cargo, not just drop it off.
Indeed, the Dragon launched earlier this week is expected to depart the Space Station next month and return with over 3,300 pounds of hardware and crew supplies.
This particular launch is also an important marker for SpaceX. It’s the last time a new Dragon capsule will be used for a resupply mission. Cargo runs in future will rely only on recovered parts and refurbished spacecraft.
SpaceX is currently developing its next generation Dragon V2, which is expected to carry crews and cargo into low Earth orbit for NASA from the end of 2018.