With a thundering, sky-lighting predawn blastoff from Cape Canaveral, a Falcon 9 rocket fired into orbit early Saturday with a Dragon cargo capsule in pursuit of the International Space Station.
Less than nine minutes later, the rocket’s first stage booster fell from the sky and executed a pinpoint propulsive landing just offshore, setting the stage for another resupply mission for NASA using the same rocket this summer using the same vehicle.
The 213-foot-tall (65-meter) rocket lifted off with a flash from its nine Merlin 1D main engines at 2:48:58 a.m. EDT (0648:58 GMT), roughly the moment Cape Canaveral rotated under space station’s orbital plane.
The Falcon 9 tilted toward the northeast to align with the space station’s flight path, riding 1.7 million pounds of thrust as roared into a starry sky. Less than two-and-a-half minutes later, the rocket’s first stage booster shut down and separated to begin a descent back to Earth, targeting SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” parked around 14 miles (22 kilometers) east of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.
The first stage lit three of its engines to begin a boost-back burn to reverse course and head back toward Florida’s Space Coast, while the Falcon 9’s upper stage continued with the primary objective of Saturday’s mission — the delivery into orbit of a Dragon cargo craft packed with 5,472 pounds (2,482 kilograms) of supplies, provisions and experiments for the station and its six-person crew.
The interaction exhaust plumes from the Falcon 9’s first and second stage Merlin engines produced a spectacular lighting effect, giving the appearance of a cosmic nebula high above the Florida spaceport.
The second stage fired for six minutes to place the Dragon supply ship in a preliminary orbit. Moments later, the automated spaceship deploy from the Falcon 9’s upper stage and unfurled two power-generating solar panels, setting the stage for a sequence of thruster firings over the next two days, culminating in the spacecraft’s approach to the space station early Monday.
Astronauts on the station will use a robotic arm to grapple the Dragon spacecraft, which will be berthed to a port on the Harmony module for a nearly one-month stay.
The Dragon cargo craft, which uses the same pressurized section that previously flew to the space station in August 2017, is carrying crew supplies, spare parts, and a host of experiments, ranging from biological investigations into spaceflight’s effects on the body, to an instrument measuring carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, to a U.S. military experiment developed in concert with NASA to demonstrate X-ray communications in space for the first time.
The resupply mission is the 17th cargo launch to the station by SpaceX under a $3.04 billion contract for 20 cargo deliveries through early 2020. SpaceX has a separate follow-on contract for at least six more resupply missions to the station through 2024, along with a $2.6 billion contract to build an upgraded Crew Dragon spaceship to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to depart the space station June 3 and head for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, bringing home research specimens and other equipment.
The successful landing of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster after Saturday’s liftoff signaled the start of SpaceX’s launch campaign for the next resupply flight to the space station, currently scheduled for no earlier than July 8 from Cape Canaveral.
NASA and SpaceX have agreed to use the same first stage that flew Saturday on the next cargo mission, designated SpaceX CRS-18, and possibly on the following CRS-19 launch in December, officials said in a press conference Saturday morning.
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