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Dragon spaceship delivers science and supplies

Posted: April 20, 2014

A Dragon cargo craft stuffed with science and supplies approached the International Space Station for an automated laser-guided final rendezvous Sunday, culminating with grapple by the outpost's robotic arm.

The Dragon spacecraft is grappled by the space station's robot arm. Photo credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
Owned and operated by SpaceX, the Dragon spacecraft completed a 40-hour trip from launch to the international research complex at 7:14 a.m. EDT (1114 GMT), when space station commander Koichi Wakata guided the lab's robot arm to grapple the free-flying cargo capsule.

The linkup occurred as the space station and Dragon spacecraft flew 30 feet apart about 260 miles over the Nile River basin of Egypt.

"Congratulations to the entire [operations] team for the successful launch, rendezvous and capture of Dragon," Wakata said.

The commercial Dragon spacecraft was maneuvered into position and attached to a berthing port on the space station's Harmony module a few hours later, clearing the way for the lab's crew to open hatches leading to the ship's pressurized cargo cabin.

"Gentlemen, the Easter Dragon is knocking at the door," astronaut Randy Bresnik radioed the space station crew from mission control in Houston.

SpaceX delivered 4,600 pounds of supplies, logistics and experiments aboard the Dragon spacecraft. The space station's astronauts will manually unpack the 3,347 pounds of gear stowed in Dragon's internal module, while the outpost's Canadian-built robotics systems will remove two payloads mounted inside Dragon's trunk.

The mission's cargo includes a fresh spacesuit, a habitat for red romaine lettuce to check vegetation growth in microgravity, and legs for Robonaut 2, the space station's robotic crew member.

The Dragon spacecraft's research payloads will support 150 science investigations aboard the space station, including an experiment funded by the National Institutes of Health seeking to identify the cause of a suppressed immune system during long-duration space missions. Scientists say the research could help treat auto-immune diseases like arthritis and diabetes.

The mission took up research experiments in the Dragon's unpressurized trunk for the first time. The passengers include a NASA optical communications terminal to demonstrate high data-rate links between the space station and the ground, along with a high-definition camera suite to collect videos of Earth.

The capsule's pressurized module was loaded with 1,576 pounds of science and research gear, 1,049 pounds of crew provisions, 449 pounds of vehicle hardware, and 271 pounds of spacewalk tools.

The solar-powered Dragon spacecraft blasted off Friday at 3:25 p.m. EDT (1925 GMT) on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The Dragon supply ship reached the space station after a series of engine burns to fine-tune its course toward the 450-ton orbiting complex.

The mission is SpaceX's third operational resupply run to the space station, coming after successful deliveries in October 2012 and March 2013. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to send up 44,000 pounds of supplies in 12 flights through 2016.

NASA contracted with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to carry cargo to the space station using privately-owned rockets and spacecraft, replacing some of the capacity lost with the retirement of the space shuttle.

The Dragon spacecraft is set to remain at the space station until May 18, when the robot arm will detach the capsule and release it in orbit in a reverse of Sunday's operations sequence.

The ship will fire thrusters to fall back through the atmosphere, deploying parachutes to splash down in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California with precious biological research samples, a spacesuit in need of repair, and other items.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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