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SpaceX launches this weekend with a crucial test flight for NASA



In the early hours of Saturday, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is supposed to blow up over Florida and bring a spacecraft in the form of a gumdrop to the International Space Station (ISS). The payload of the rocket is SpaceX's new Crew Dragon capsule – the company's first vehicle to transport people into space.

Although the capsule is intended for passengers, no one will be on board for this trip. That's because this flight is basically a test. The mission, called Demonstration-1 or DM-1, will show NASA that the Crew Dragon is space-safe and safe for future human crewmembers.

NASA is particularly worried about it as the first humans to fly on the Crew Dragon will be NASA astronauts. The Crew Dragon is an integral part of the Space Agency's Commercial Crew program, which uses NASA astronauts to transport privately-crafted spacecraft to and from the International Space Station. Both SpaceX and the airline Boeing have produced capsules for this purpose. After five years of development, SpaceX may be the first to launch its vehicle into space. If all goes well, Crew Dragon could go into orbit next time.

Here's why DM-1

happens, what to expect and what comes next after launch.

Why is that important?

When the Space Shuttle of NASA stopped flying in 2011, the space agency lost its main method of sending its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, NASA has bought seats aboard the Russian Soyuz probe Sonoy to bring US astronauts and international partners to the ISS. It's an expensive arrangement that costs NASA $ 81 million per seat. At the moment this is also NASA's only option. If the Soyuz stopped operating for a long time, NASA would have no way to launch their people into space.

That's why NASA has been working to re-launch its astronauts over the past decade. Through the Commercial Crew program, NASA has commissioned both SpaceX and Boeing worth $ 2.6 billion and $ 4.2 billion, respectively, to handle the development of new vehicles that could bring astronauts to and from the ISS to partially finance. Since then, Boeing has been working on his vehicle, the CST-100 Starliner, and SpaceX is developing the Crew Dragon.


An artistic representation of the two space capsules of SpaceX and Boeing together with the International Space Station
Image: NASA

Both vehicles will fly later this year. Boeing plans its first test flight in April. However, it was a long and bumpy road to get to that point. When NASA first received orders for SpaceX and Boeing in 2014, the first astronauts were due to fly until 2017. But numerous delays and technical hurdles have pushed this goal back. NASA security advisers expressed concerns about certain aspects of vehicle design, while other experts questioned SpaceX's plans to fill its rockets with those on board.

Slowly but surely these concerns are being resolved and NASA is looking forward to the Crew Dragon in action for this upcoming mission.

How will the launch work?

The launch will be similar to other missions SpaceX flew to the International Space Station. The Crew Dragon is an enhanced version of the company's Dragon Cargo Pod, which supplies SpaceX with supplies to astronauts stationed on the International Space Station since 2012. Just like these capsules, the Crew Dragon launches into orbit mounted on top of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets.


SpaceX's Crew Dragon on Falcon 9 will take it into space. SpaceX's "Crew Access Arm" is stretched out towards the capsule.
Image: NASA

The vehicle will take off from the SpaceX launch pad of NASA's Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. In 2014, the company took over a launch site in Kennedy, which was once used for missions of NASA's Saturn V rocket to the Moon and for old space shuttle missions. SpaceX has adapted the pad to the Falcon 9's flights and added more hardware needed for future crew missions. One such extension is a new tunnel, which is attached to a tower near the pad and can reach the spacecraft via the astronaut.

DM-1 will be taking off on Saturday, March 2, at 2:49 pm ET. The very early start time allows the capsule to hit the International Space Station on its orbit. From now on, the weather looks pretty good at the start, with an 80 percent chance that the conditions are favorable.

What will happen on this mission?

NASA says the Crew Dragon is equipped with various instruments and cameras to collect data throughout the flight. It will carry about 400 pounds of cargo and weighs like future capsules when people are on board. While driving in the capsule also drives a test dummy with the custom flight suit, SpaceX has designed for future passengers.

Once Crew Dragon is in orbit, it will orbit the Earth a few times before approaching the International Space Station about a day later. One of the major differences between this launch and a standard cargo mission is the docking procedure. So far, all of SpaceX's cargo flights were moored to the ISS, meaning the vehicles are near the station and are then packed by a robotic arm operated by an astronaut. The arm brings the capsules even closer to the station and fastens them to a port.


An artistic depiction of SpaceX's Crew Dragon docking at the International Space Station
Image: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon & # 39; n & # 39; I need a robotic arm to get to the International Space Station. It is designed to automatically dock with the ISS automatically using a combination of software, lasers, and sensors. In 2016, astronauts installed a new docking adapter outside the International Space Station, which will be the target of the Crew Dragon for this flight. If all goes well, Crew Dragon will dock at the ISS at 6:00 pm ET on Sunday 3 March.

. The spacecraft hatch will open and there will be a small welcoming ceremony with the three ISS crew members: NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko. The trio will also go in to check it and dump the cargo.

The capsule will remain on the ISS for less than a week and will leave on Thursday, March 7, four days later. Crew Dragon will jump off the ISS from about 2.30 am (ET) and then continue to drift off the station. After 7:30 CET, the capsule ignites its engine and moves out of orbit to earth. A parachute system is used to lower the capsule slightly towards the Atlantic at around 8:45 am (ET). NASA hopes to also get a good overview of this parachute deployment to qualify the system for future crewed flights.

What's next?

Both NASA and SpaceX will be following the DM-1 rating of the flight. And in about a month, it will be time for SpaceX's next big start – one that will test the company's emergency exit system.

Called a "crash during the flight," this is a scenario SpaceX would implement in case the Falcon 9 missile encounters a problem during flight and creates a dangerous environment for the crew. In the structure of the crew Dragon capsule eight engines, Super Dracos are embedded, which can ignite when starting and the vehicle can lead away from a defective rocket.

SpaceX plans to test this capability with the same Crew Dragon launching this weekend. The company will launch the capsule from Florida and then send a command for the demolition system to be activated. The rocket will be shut down during the test while Crew Dragon's engines will take the capsule. SpaceX boss Elon Musk mentioned on Twitter that during the test "this rocket is most likely to be destroyed".

Once NASA is satisfied with the spacecraft's safety procedures, the SpaceX capsule may board the ship in July. The first test crew of SpaceX consists of two people, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who are veterans of NASA. During this trip, the two will dock at the ISS and spend a few weeks in orbit to test with the Crew Dragon vehicle. They then drive off and splash in the Atlantic, where they are picked up by one of the SpaceX boats to pick up the capsule.

If this mission is going well, NASA will make the final decision as to whether the SpaceX will be certified Crew Dragon for regular crew missions to the International Space Station. Until then, there is still much to do. The flight this weekend, however, will be a big step on the way to becoming a SpaceX vehicle.


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