After spending nearly a month in space, the Dragon capsule from SpaceX landed in the Pacific ocean on Tuesday, March 26. This splashdown marked the end of SpaceX’s second commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station. These resupply missions support the work and well being of the ISS crew since the end of the NASA Space Shuttle program in 2011. For this reason, moments were particularly tense when it appeared that the Dragon capsule might not be able to reach the station after achieving orbit.
During the first CRS mission, the Falcon 9 rocket experienced an anomaly in one of its first stage engines. A sudden loss of pressure caused a small explosion before the engine was shut down and a new ascent trajectory was calculated. This time, no anomalies with the Falcon rocket were reported.
However, once the Dragon capsule achieved orbit, ground control discovered that three of the capsule’s four thruster pods were being inhibited from initializing. Deciding to delay solar panel deployment until at least two of the thrusters were operational, the team prepared to signal an override to the inhibit command as Dragon passed over an Australia ground station.
Finding the thruster pod three tank pressure to be positive, the capsule’s solar panels were deployed. The team then proceeded to bring up thruster pods two and four. With the help of the U.S. Air Force’s long range communication system, all four thruster pods were engaged, allowing Dragon to transition from free drift to active control. The capsule entered an orbit-raising burn, putting it on track to rendezvous with the ISS a day later than originally planned.
The Dragon capsule docked with the ISS at 4:31 AM CDT on Sunday, March 3, and remained attached to the station for about three weeks. During its stay, the space station crew unloaded supplies and loaded a return payload with research results, experiments, and equipment. Over 3000 pounds of equipment and packing material are loaded onto the craft.
At 5:56 AM CDT on Tuesday, March 26, Dragon departed the ISS for Earth. The departure took place one day later than originally planned do due sea weather at the landing site. The capsule then conducted three departure burns, followed by a ten minute deorbit burn. As the capsule reentered the armosphere, it ejected its trunk and solar arrays to burn up in the atmosphere.
The pod thrusters performed nominally during the return approach. After blasting through the atmosphere, Dragon successfully deployed its drogue parachute, followed soon after by its three main chutes. Splashdown occurred 200 miles out in the Pacific at 11:34 AM CDT. Less than two days later, Dragon arrived at the Port of LA, cargo intact.
An interactive panoramic view inside the Dragon capsule can be viewed here.
SpaceX’s third commercial resupply mission, CRS-3, will launch no earlier than 2 October 2013, with KickSat onboard.