SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon spacecraft leaves the International Space Station on Tuesday. Credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now

The SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule parachuted into a target machine gun Wednesday night west of Tampa, returning more than two tons of test samples from the International Space Station, including live rodents and dozens of bottles of old French wine.

The commercial supply ship, which was operated on an autopilot, departed from orbit and returned to atmosphere over the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night. A series of parachutes were deployed to slow the capsule’s descent to a relatively moderate speed to spray water west of Tampa, as the SpaceX recovery ship was poised to pull the spacecraft from the sea.

The return concluded the 38-day mission for the Cargo Dragon, the first in a new design of SpaceX supply ships to service the International Space Station. The Cargo Dragon, or Dragon 2, replaces SpaceX’s fleet of first-generation Dragon charging pods, which first flew in early 2020.

SpaceX confirmed the successful launch of Cargo Dragon with a tweet. NASA and SpaceX have provided no live coverage of the capsule’s return to Earth. A NASA WB-57 Airborne Photography aircraft was flying over the recovery area to take pictures of the Cargo Dragon entry and fire.

NASA released a statement later Wednesday night confirming the capsule had fallen at 8:26 PM EST (0126 GMT).

The Cargo Dragon exited the space station at 9:05 a.m. EST (1405 GMT) on Tuesday, one day later than scheduled. SpaceX and NASA managers have delayed the repatriation due to bad weather in the Atlantic Primary Recovery Zone northeast of Daytona Beach.

The dragon returned to Earth with a load of 4,414 pounds, or 2,002 kg, according to a NASA spokesperson.

The new Cargo Dragon capsules are derived from SpaceX’s human-ranked Crew Dragon spacecraft, which ferry astronauts to and from the space station. An upgraded Cargo Dragon capsule, like the Crew Dragon, is designed to flush off the coast of Florida, near SpaceX’s Dragon refurbishment facility at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The closer proximity to Cape Canaveral allows SpaceX to return time-sensitive cargo to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in four to nine hours. Previous Dragon cargo missions ended with sprinkling accidents in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, and it took days to transfer space station research samples to NASA.

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The rescue ship “Go Navigator” equipped with SpaceX technicians and engineers was expected to lift the capsule onto its deck after spraying. The SpaceX team planned to unload scientific samples of time significance and put them on a helicopter for a flight to the Kennedy Space Center overnight.

The helicopter will arrive at the Kennedy launch and landing facility, and the cargo will be transported to the truck’s nearby space station processing facility, according to NASA.

There the scientists will receive the samples to begin their analyzes. NASA said that after a peek inside the SSPF in Kennedy, some of the materials will be shipped to research teams in California, Texas, Massachusetts, Japan, and other locations.

Scientific specimens return to Kennedy very quickly after returning to space to the Space Shuttle program, when missions brought incoming cargo directly to Florida’s spaceport.

“I’m excited to see science finally coming back here again because we can get these time-sensitive experiments into the lab faster than ever,” said Jennifer Wahlberg, project manager for the Kennedy Space Center use, in a statement. “Sending the flag into space and then receiving it back on the runway was definitely a thing in the shuttle days that we’re really proud of, and being able to join the process is amazing.”

The experiments returned home aboard the Cargo Dragon included live mice that are part of the 23 rodent research investigation, which studies the function of arteries, veins and lymph structures in the eye and changes in the retina before and after spaceflight, according to NASA.

Scientists are looking for insights into whether these changes are affecting eyesight. NASA says at least 40 percent of astronauts experience poor eyesight on long-term spaceflight.

“The Rodent Research 23 is designed to begin studying re-adaptive responses to rodent attraction as quickly as possible, making her the ideal candidate for this voyage,” said Jennifer Buchley, deputy chief scientist for the International Space Station program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Also on board the Cargo Dragon: twelve bottles of Bordeaux wine and 320 grapes.

The wine bottles spent more than a year on the space station after being launched on the Northrop Grumman Cygnus supply ship in late 2019. Now back on Earth, some of the bottles will be opened for exclusive tasting, while researchers will begin a more scientific analysis. Some wines to measure age after 14 months in microgravity.

Scientists will look at the branches of grapes – called sticks – to assess how they tolerate radiation and the low-gravity environment in orbit. One of the goals of the privately funded experiment, led by a startup in Luxembourg called Space Cargo Unlimited, is to learn how plants adapt to the pressures of spaceflight.

Space Cargo Unlimited says grapes and wineries are vulnerable to climate change, and the results of the space station experiment could lead to lessons about how to grow grapes in the most extreme environments on Earth.

There was also a biomedical experiment led by researchers at Stanford University looking at how microgravity affects cardiovascular cells, and an experiment developed by Japanese scientists shows the growth of 3D organ buds from human stem cells in space.

NASA patch for the 21st SpaceX resupply mission. Credit: NASA

Other experiments returning to Earth included a payload led by researchers at Texas State University in an effort to identify bacterial genes used during the growth of biofilms. The investigation examined whether these biofilms could corrode stainless steel, and evaluated the efficacy of a silver-based disinfectant, to aid long-lasting spacecraft designers in the future.

Material has also appeared from a Cargo Dragon optical fiber production technology demonstration. Scientists and engineers will test the optical fiber materials manufactured on the space station to see if they match expectations that fibers produced in space have “qualities much higher than those produced on Earth,” NASA says.

The upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft has a larger interior volume than SpaceX’s first-generation Dragon cargo ship, which conducted its last mission to the space station in 2020. It also has twice the power-locked capacity compared to previous Dragon capsules, and can support up to 12 of these capsules. Tanks for returning to the ground, which adds more capacity for returning frozen and chilled samples.

“Using the previous Dragon spacecraft, it could take up to 48 hours from the time the capsule collided with water in the Pacific Ocean for it to return to Long Beach, California. Then we started distributing these samples about four to five hours later,” Mary Walsh said. Leader of the Kennedy Office Use Journey to Research Integration. “Now we’re going to bring the science back early and turn it over to researchers in just four to nine hours after the water splashes.”

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“This ability to quickly restore science is very important to space biology because we want to understand whether the effects we’re trying to measure in orbit are due to microgravity or because of the stress a participant or sample might see,” said Curt Costello, chief scientist for the NASA Space Station Program: “On landing.” “So getting these people back to Cape very quickly and handing them over to our scientists is a great new ability.”

Other changes introduced with the new Cargo Dragon spacecraft include the ability to dock and de-dock automatically at the station. The cargo ships of the first generation Dragon were struck by the station’s robotic arm.

The Cargo Dragon Compartment can be reused five times, according to SpaceX. An uncompressed torso can be eliminated, and a new one will fly in each Cargo Dragon mission.

Before launching its braking missiles to fall from orbit, the Cargo Dragon ditched its box section to stay in space before atmospheric clouds cause it to naturally re-enter the atmosphere and burn. The capsule also closed the nose cone to cover the dock port before sinking back into the atmosphere.

The Cargo Dragon was launched on December 6 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida over a Falcon 9 rocket. The capsule arrived at the space station the next day with an automated connection to a new docking port on the top, or upper, side of the Harmony module at the search site.

It delivered several experiments and a commercial air lock to the space station for Nanoracks, a Houston-based company that plans to use the add-on to deploy small satellites, dispose of garbage, and host research investigations.

The Cargo Dragon mission has been SpaceX’s 21st resupply flight to the space station since 2012 under a multi-billion dollar contract with NASA.

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