SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft heads home after a month in orbit

After more than a month in orbit, SpaceX’s second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft has undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) on its way back to Earth.

Delayed several days by stormy conditions in the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of Hurricane Elsa thankfully waned enough for NASA and SpaceX to proceed with the second autonomous undocking of a Cargo Dragon on July 8th. Originally scheduled on Tuesday, Dragon’s flawless Thursday departure leaves the spacecraft on track to reenter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down off of Florida’s West Coast in the Gulf of Mexico around 11:29 pm EDT (UTC-4) on Friday, July 9th.

Thanks to SpaceX’s growing expertise with Dragon 2 recovery operations and the CRS-22 mission’s preferred recovery location, science experiments among the more than two tons (~4400 lb) of cargo returning to Earth could be in the hands of their respective scientists mere hours after splashdown.

SpaceX Dragon and payload fairing recovery vessel GO Searcher departed its Port Canaveral berth on July 5th and ultimately rerouted to Tampa Bay after weather delays were confirmed. The ship was able to leave its temporary haven on July 8th and should arrive at the recovery zone around 100-150 km south of Tallahassee, Florida hours before Dragon’s planned reentry.

Shown here is the SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft on board the company’s Go Navigator recovery ship after making its successful parachute-assisted splashdown west of Tampa off the Florida coast on Jan. 13, 2020, at 8:26 p.m. EST. Just after loading Dragon onto Go Navigator, SpaceX packed an Airbus H225 helicopter with the time-sensitive research cargo for delivery to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Dragon returned more than 4,400 pounds of scientific experiments and other cargo from the International Space Station. The upgraded cargo Dragon capsule boasts double the powered locker capacity to preserve science samples, allowing for a significant increase in the research that can be carried back to Earth. Photo credit: SpaceX

CRS-22’s reentry, descent, and splashdown is set to occur a few days shy of six months after Cargo Dragon 2’s first successful recovery, which was completed on January 13th. Assuming that CRS-22 ultimately marks SpaceX’s 24th consecutively successful orbital spacecraft recovery, the company’s next Dragon launch – CRS-23 – is scheduled to lift off as early as August 18th, 2021, carrying another wealth of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

Cargo Dragon 2’s third launch is expected to occur just one week after Northrop Grumman’s (formerly Orbital ATK) 16th expendable Cygnus resupply mission, which is set to lift off on an Antares rocket no earlier than (NET) August 10th. Cygnus’ NG-16 mission is itself scheduled to launch just 11 days after Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is set to attempt its second uncrewed mission to the ISS on July 30th. Deemed an Orbital Flight Test, OFT-1 almost ended in catastrophe twice in the handful of hours Starliner was aloft in December 2019. A variety major software bugs and development failures ultimately caused an abort almost the second the spacecraft deployed from ULA’s Atlas V rocket.

In September, a flight-proven SpaceX Crew Dragon is expected to support the world’s first fully private crewed launch to orbit, carrying four passengers as part of billionaire Jared Isaacman’s Inspiration4 mission. As early as late October, SpaceX could launch another four astronauts on Crew-4, the company’s fourth operational space station ferry mission for NASA. Finally, another Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft is scheduled to fly on CRS-24 in December 2021 – the seventh Dragon launch in 12 months if schedules hold.

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