Launch success for first private cargo delivery to space

22/05/2012

California’s SpaceX has successfully launched on a mission to re-supply the space station. This marks the first cargo delivery to the orbiting outpost by a private company.

The firm’s Falcon rocket, topped by an unmanned Dragon freight capsule, launched from its Florida pad this morning at 07:44 GMT.

The freight capsule topped rocket completed its initial climb to an altitude 340km above Earth in a little less than 10 minutes.

The unmanned Dragon freight capsule opened its solar panels within moments of being ejected from the Falcon rocket.

The estimated timeframe for the rocket to reach the station is currently a couple of days and it is hoped that the vessel will demonstrate its guidance, control and communications systems on Thursday, at a distance of 2.5km from the International Space Station.

If the Dragon freight capsule passes the practice proximity manoeuvres, it will be allowed to drive within 10m of the station on Friday, where astronauts inside the platform will then grab the ship with a robotic arm and berth it to the 400km-high structure.

The astronauts will then empty the Dragon freight capsule of its 500kg of cargo including food, water and equipment before releasing it for a return to Earth next week, at the end of the month.

The successful launch of the mission has major significance because it marks a big change in the way the US wants to conduct its space operations.

NASA hopes to offload a number of routine human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit to commercial industry. Freight transport will be the first service to be bought in from external suppliers, with the transport of astronauts to and from the station will be decided afterwards.

NASA believes that my implementing these changes, it will save money that can be invested in exploration missions to destinations such as asteroids and Mars.

SpaceX have moved to lower expectations ahead of the mission and a number of other systems it has to demonstrate over the next few days. Once NASA is happy that SpaceX have met a series of development milestones a $1.6 billion ISS re-supply contract will start.

In addition to SpaceX, NASA is looking to work alongside a second freight cargo partner. Orbital Sciences Corporation of Virginia is slightly behind SpaceX in its development schedule; however it did start work on its Antares rocket and Cyngnus capsule system later.

Orbital are working towards a timeframe whereby a fist mission to the vicinity of the International Space Station will take place later this year, or early in 2013.

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