And they stick the landing!

Late on Friday evening, a rocket landed around 9 minutes after lift-off.

It seems unremarkable, doesn’t it? But then, consider this: the landing took place on a floating barge, somewhere in the ocean off the Florida coast. Not the easiest thing to achieve (as I’m sure you can imagine), and as such, it was a world-first. Both SpaceX and rival company Blue Origin have achieved rocket landings on solid ground before (which should be celebrated as well), but this is the first time it has been achieved on a constantly moving surface; a previous attempt was almost successful, but tipped over on landing, destroying the rocket.

CRS-8 liftoff
Liftoff of CRS-8, one of the most important missions since the end of the Shuttle era (Credit: Steve Jurvetson)

This mission, SpaceX’s 8th to the International Space Station (so dubbed CRS-8), was actually due to launch in September; unfortunately it was delayed due to the failure of the previous mission, CRS-7, which exploded not long after lift-off in June. Fortunately of course, CRS-8 suffered no such failure, and the Falcon 9 rocket lifted the Dragon capsule into the air above Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 21:43 BST (16:43 local), returning to land 9 minutes later on the floating barge ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ (no joke, that is the actual name of the barge!) Considering that the rocket is one of the more expensive parts of a space mission, and that favourable trajectories to send a payload to orbit tend to end in the sea, this is potentially a major breakthrough in space cargo transportation.

The payload aboard the rocket consisted of a number of science experiments; perhaps the most significant of these was a special inflatable habitat. Built by Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (or BEAM for short) is an inflatable module (another first) that can expand from 3 cubic metres to 16 (about the size of a small tent). It is made of many layers of fabric, and covered with Kevlar to withstand all that space can throw at it. It will be attached to the space station’s ‘Tranquillity’ module for the next 2 years, whilst the astronauts perform experiments and see how well it performs. The hope is that it could pave the way for using inflatable modules on future missions, such as settling on Mars.

The Dragon capsule entered the station’s vicinity on Sunday morning. After a number of checks and stoppage points, British astronaut Major Tim Peake used the Canadarm to guide the capsule to the required hatch at 12:23 BST, less than half an hour behind schedule. Major Peake confirmed the docking with the words, “We show load is safe, and it looks like we’ve caught a Dragon,” cueing celebrations not just in Houston but in Hawthorne, California, where SpaceX’s own mission control resides; this coming, of course, less than 2 days after the monumental landing on the barge. It’s fair to say it’s been a good few days for Elon Musk and SpaceX!

There were also a number of other major and minor milestones with CRS-8; not only is it the third cargo vessel to arrive at the station in the last 15-20 days, but it is also the first time that 2 United States commercial cargo ships have been attached to the station at any one time, thanks to the continued presence of a

TIm Peake
Tim Peake is the first government-funded astronaut to represent Britain (Credit: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

Cygnus vehicle that arrived on the 26th of March. This is also only the second time that as many as 6 vehicles have been attached to the station; the first time was in February 2011, with the last mission of the Space Shuttle ‘Discovery’.

The next mission for SpaceX will be mission CRS-9, another cargo resupply mission slated to launch later this year; unfortunately, Major Peake may not be on station when it arrives, as his mission is due to conclude in June. Nevertheless, he has proved himself a very capable astronaut, and one we can all be proud of (though I’m sure his most welcome contribution will have been the testing of vastly improved food developed by chef Heston Blumenthal)!

 

In other news:

  • French scientist Dr Cornelia Meinert and her colleagues have this week revealed how the early solar system could have produced ribose, a sugar found in both RNA and DNA. The international team used a technique called ‘Multidimensional Gas Chromatography’ to detect the ribose, along with many other complex molecules including amino acids and alcohols, after shining a UV light on a mixture simulating the ice found in nebulae. All of the products revealed by the technique are water-soluble, so could form part of the chemical make-up of life – and importantly, nebulae are common, so these building blocks could be fairly widespread.
  • Malawians could be set for a vast (but costly) increase in the availability of electricity. Currently only 9% of the population has access to power (1% away from urban areas) but the government is opening the doors to independent producers, whose customers won’t have to rely on energy generated by state utility Escom. Current capacity is set to increase by two-thirds by 2019, with the issue of light helped by organisations like charity SolarAid, who sell solar-powered lamps on a pay-as-you-go basis. The lights cost $12 (£8), almost half a month’s typical salary, but only a third of this is charged upfront with the rest being paid off over a few months. Entire homes and schools can be lit up using a number of the lamps, which replace potentially unsafe paraffin lamps – and can also charge mobile phones. As for the electricity grid, though, energy minister Bright Msaka is realistic about potential investors: “We have to make sure that the people who come to invest in the power sector in Malawi are able to make a profit. Either you have cheap power that is inadequate or you have adequate power for which you pay the appropriate price.” Not necessarily good news for those living in poorer parts of the country.

 

All pictures from Flickr, used under the Creative Commons license found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

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