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Supplies delivered to space station by Dragon cargo craft

Posted: September 23, 2014

A Dragon cargo craft closed in on the International Space Station on Tuesday after a two-day pursuit following Sunday's launch from Cape Canaveral, delivering more than 2.5 tons of supplies for scientists and the lab's residents.

The Dragon spacecraft nears the International Space Station during Tuesday's rendezvous. Credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman
A habitat with 20 mice, a commercially-made 3D printer, and a $26 million NASA instrument to aid hurricane research -- plus gear for more than 250 other experiments -- arrived inside the Dragon supply ship.

European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst took control of the space station's Canadian-built robotic arm to grapple the 12-foot-diameter gumdrop-shaped cargo capsule at 6:52 a.m. EDT (1052 GMT) Tuesday.

"This was, indeed, a great flight of the Dragon toward the station, and we're happy to have a new vehicle on board, With that we would like to congratulate all the teams on the ground -- SpaceX and the NASA combined teams," Gerst told mission control moments moments after grabbing the capsule with the robot arm.

"We're going to be performing a lot of science in the next month," Gerst said.

The capture of the Dragon spacecraft ended a two-day chase of the space station since the logistics carrier blasted off from Cape Canaveral early Sunday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Satellite-assisted GPS navigation guided the Dragon spaceship to the vicinity of the space station as the capsule completed a series of thruster burns to boost its orbit to an altitude of 260 miles.

Laser beams and thermal infrared imagers provided guidance for the final phase of the Dragon's approach, supplying the ship's computers with precise data on its position and movement relative to the space station.

After the craft's capture by Gerst, mission control maneuvered the robot arm with the Dragon spaceship to a berthing port on the Earth-facing side of the space station's Harmony module.

A series of latches and bolts closed to create a firm mechanical connection between the Harmony module and the Dragon spacecraft at 9:21 a.m. EDT (1321 GMT).

Astronauts opened the hatches between the outpost and Dragon later Tuesday to begin unloading more than 5,100 pounds of cargo stowed inside the ship's pressurized and unpressurized sections.

The SpaceX-owned cargo freighter will stay attached to the space station until mid-October, when astronauts will install research specimens and other hardware for return to Earth.

The Dragon spacecraft will depart the station and descend through the atmosphere to a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California, where SpaceX ground crews will retrieve the capsule and begin unpacking its cargo for distribution to NASA and scientists.

The four-week flight marks the fourth mission in SpaceX's $1.6 billion commercial cargo resupply contract with NASA, which calls for a dozen Dragon flights through 2016.

Astronauts will transfer the mice into two habitats aboard the space station, with 10 mice in each enclosure.

Half the mice are sponsored by NASA to test out the effectiveness of animal handling procedures in orbit. A pharmaceutical company will study tissue samples from the other mice to help develop muscle atrophy treatments, according to NASA.

Ten of the mice will return in mid-October aboard the Dragon spacecraft, and the others are due to come back to Earth in December.

Fruit flies were also launched inside the Dragon capsule to study behavioral changes during spaceflight.

A commercially-developed 3D printer, built by Silicon Valley startup Made in Space, is stowed aboard the Dragon spacecraft. It will be set up inside the space station to see if 3D printing is viable in microgravity.

Funded in a public-private partnership by Made in Space and NASA, the 3D printer is the first device of its kind to ever launch into space. Engineers on the ground will uplink commands to the printer, giving it a 3D model of an object to build out of a stock of plastic carried inside.

If it works, 3D printing could help enable future space missions to distant destinations like Mars.

"It's especially important when we consider human space exploration," said Niki Werkheiser, NASA's manager for the 3D printer project. "From day one, the supply chain has been very constrained. We have to launch every single thing we ever need from Earth, so being able to make what you need on orbit, when you need it, is a real game changer."

NASA's wind-watching ISS-RapidScat instrument is bolted inside the Dragon capsule's external trunk section. Scientists say the sensor will help predict the strengthening of hurricanes in the tropics by tracking winds.

Once Dragon arrives at the space station, the lab's Dextre robotic handyman will pull the RapidScat instrument from the capsule's mounting pallet and place it outside the European Space Agency's Columbus module.

Other gear to be delivered by SpaceX includes an experiment that could help improve the design of golf clubs, IMAX cameras, and two batteries to be installed into U.S. spacesuits ahead of a pair of spacewalks planned in October.

The Dragon spacecraft's arrival kicks off a busy week aboard the space station.

A fresh three-person crew -- NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova -- is set for launch Thursday on a Soyuz rocket, planning to dock with the space station less than six hours later to restore the outpost to a full complement of six crew members.

The trio will join Gerst, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and space station commander Maxim Suraev, who are nearly four months into a five-and-a-half month residency aboard the complex.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.