SpaceX should launch a crucial test flight for NASA this weekend


On Saturday morning, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is due to take off from Florida to propel a rubber-shaped spaceship to the International Space Station. The rocket's payload is SpaceX's new capsule, Crew Dragon – the company's very first vehicle designed to transport people into space.

Although the capsule is intended for passengers, no one will be on board for this trip. This is because this flight is, basically, a test. The mission, called Demonstration-1 or DM-1, aims to show NASA that the Dragon's crew is worthy of space and that it is safe for future members of the crew. Human crew.

NASA is particularly worried about this, as the first people to fly the Crew Dragon will be NASA astronauts. Crew Dragon is an essential part of the space agency's commercial crew program, which uses privately-manufactured spacecraft to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX and its aerospace company Boeing have both designed capsules for this purpose. After five years of development, SpaceX could be the first to install its vehicle in space. If all goes well, the Dragon of the crew could have people inside during its next launch in orbit.

Here's why DM-1 happens, what to expect and what will happen once the launch is complete.

Why is it important?

When NASA's space shuttle stopped flying in 2011, the space agency lost its primary means of sending its astronauts to the International Space Station. Since then, NASA has bought seats aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to allow US astronauts and international partners to access the ISS. It is a costly arrangement, which costs $ 81 million per seat at NASA. It's also NASA's only option at the moment. If the Soyuz were to cease operations for an extended period, NASA would have no way to bring its population into space.

That's why, over the past decade, NASA has been striving to find its astronauts in American-made vehicles. As part of the commercial crew program, NASA awarded $ 2.6 and $ 4.2 billion in contracts to SpaceX and Boeing, respectively, to partially fund the development of new vehicles capable of ISS astronauts. Since then, Boeing has been working on his vehicle, the Starliner CST-100, while SpaceX is developing the Crew Dragon.

An artistic rendering of SpaceX and two Boeing capsules in space, as well as the International Space Station
Image: NASA

Both vehicles are expected to fly this year, with Boeing aiming for its first test flight in April. To get to this point, the road was long and bumpy. When NASA awarded its contracts to SpaceX and Boeing for the first time in 2014, the goal was to fly the first astronauts by 2017. However, many delays and technical obstacles have pushed this goal. NASA's safety advisers have expressed concerns about some aspects of vehicle design, while other experts have questioned SpaceX's plan to refuel its rockets with people on board.

Slowly but surely, these concerns are being solved and NASA wants to see the Crew Dragon in action during this upcoming mission.

How will the launch take place?

The launch will be similar to other missions that SpaceX has made to the International Space Station. Crew Dragon is an upgraded version of Dragon's cargo capsule, used by SpaceX to send supplies to astronauts installed on the International Space Station since 2012. Just like these capsules, the Dragon Crew will launch into orbit over 39, one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets.

SpaceX Crew Dragon above the Falcon 9 that will transport it into space. SpaceX's "crew access arm" extends to the capsule.
Image: NASA

The vehicle will take off from the SpaceX launch pad from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. In 2014, the company took over a launch site at Kennedy, formerly used for NASA's Saturn V on the Moon rocket missions, as well as for the former Space Shuttle missions. SpaceX has modified the pad to fit Falcon 9 flights and added the necessary equipment for future crewed missions. One of these additions is a new tunnel, connected to a tower near the platform, that astronauts will eventually cross to reach the spacecraft.

The DM-1 will take off at 2:49 am ET on Saturday, March 2nd. the very The anticipated launch will allow the capsule to join the International Space Station in its orbit. Currently, the weather conditions are rather favorable to launch, with a 80% chance that conditions are favorable.

What will happen during this mission?

According to NASA, the Crew Dragon is equipped with various instruments and cameras designed to collect data throughout its flight. It will carry about 400 pounds of cargo and will weigh the same way as future capsules when there will be people on board. A test dummy also walks inside the capsule, wearing the custom flight suit that SpaceX has designed for future passengers.

Once Crew Dragon is in orbit, it will circle the Earth several times before approaching the International Space Station about a day later. One of the main differences between this launch and a classic cargo mission is its docking procedures. So far, all SpaceX freighter flights have been moored to the ISS, ie the vehicles are moving close to the station and are then seized by a robotic arm operated by an astronaut. The arm brings the capsules even closer to the station and then attaches them to a port.

An artistic rendering of how SpaceX's Crew Dragon will dock at the International Space Station
Image: SpaceX

The crew does not need a robotic arm to get to the International Space Station. It is designed to stop automatically with the ISS, using a combination of software, lasers and sensors. In 2016, the astronauts installed a new mooring adapter on the outside of the International Space Station, which will be the Dragon target of the crew for this flight. If all goes well, Crew Dragon should dock at the ISS around 6 am Sunday, March 3rd.

When she arrives, the spaceship door will be opened and there will be a small welcome ceremony with the three crew members on the ISS: NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko. The trio will also go inside to check and unload the cargo.

The capsule will remain attached to the ISS for less than a week and will leave four days later on Thursday, March 7th. Crew Dragon will disarm from the ISS very early, around 2:30 pm Eastern Time, and then move away from the station. After 7:30 pm Eastern Time, the capsule will fire its engine and pull itself out of its orbit to descend to Earth. A parachute system will be deployed to gently lower the capsule in the Atlantic Ocean around 8:45 am (Eastern Time). NASA also hopes to have a good view of this parachute deployment to qualify the system for future crewed flights.

What happens next?

NASA and SpaceX will spend time after the DM-1 to evaluate the flight. And in about a month, the next big launch of SpaceX will be launched – a test that will test the company's emergency evacuation system.

Known as the "Flight Interruption", this is a scenario that SpaceX would implement in the event that the Falcon 9 rocket encounters a problem during flight, creating a dangerous environment for l & # 39; crew. The structure of the Dragon Crew capsule includes eight thrusters, called Super Dracos, that can ignite during launch and move the vehicle away from a defective rocket.

SpaceX plans to test this ability using the same Dragon Crew that was launched this weekend. The company will launch the capsule from Florida and then send an activation command of the abandonment system. The rocket will stop during the test, while the Crew Dragon thrusters will carry the capsule. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, mentioned on Twitter there is a "high probability that this rocket will be destroyed" during the test.

Once NASA is satisfied with the safety procedures of the spacecraft, SpaceX's capsule will go into orbit with people on board, possibly as early as July. The first SpaceX test team is made up of two people, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who are veterans of NASA. During this trip, the two men will dock with the ISS and spend a few weeks in orbit performing tests on the Crew Dragon vehicle. They will then leave and land in the Atlantic, where they will be greeted by one of SpaceX's ships designed to recover the capsule.

If this mission goes well, NASA will make the final decision on the certification of the SpaceX crew dragon for regular crew missions to the International Space Station. Much remains to be done by then. But the flight this weekend will be a big step forward to equip passengers with a SpaceX vehicle.

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