SpaceX launches space station resupply mission, lands rocket on drone ship

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad at 2:48:58 a.m. EDT (0648:58 GMT) Saturday. Credit: SpaceX

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 Falcon 9’s first and second stages, appearing as two bright dots in the night sky, simultaneously fire their engines to return to landing and head into orbit, respectively. Credit: Steven Young/Spaceflight Now

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.

In this infrared camera view, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage booster executes its landing burn to slow down for touchdown on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” roughly 14 miles east of Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX

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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