Nothing to it. After helping boost a Dragon capsule into low-Earth orbit, the Falcon 9’s first stage began its fall back to Earth. A stunning descent through cloudy skies this morning paved the way for history. The first daytime landing of the first stage at LZ-1 (fast forward to 27:30 to see the landing).
Today was a day for firsts at the historic LC-39A launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. Humankind’s most extraordinary journeys into the final frontier launched from here including Apollo 11, the mission that put two humans on the Moon.
SpaceX signed a lease for LC-39A in 2014, but today’s launch was the first SpaceX mission from the pad. It’s also the first time a non-NASA spacecraft has roared into the skies from it.
While landing rockets back on the ground is what gets most of us tune in, there’s also an important mission going on. Designated CRS-10, the mission is the 10th of up to 20 International Space Station resupply missions. This morning’s smooth launch puts the Dragon spacecraft in position to rendezvous with the ISS on Wednesday.
Astronauts Thomas Pesquet (ESA) and Shane Kimbrough (NASA) will wake up early Wednesday morning to capture the Dragon capsule. Using the station’s robotic arm, the pair of astronauts will grab the capsule and pull it in to begin offloading all the supplies, equipment and experiments tucked inside.
One of these experiments could help folks back on Earth fight immunological diseases. It’s Called CASIS PCG 5, or Microgravity Growth of Crystalline Monoclonal Antibodies for Pharmaceutical Applications. Monoclonal antibodies help ward off serious diseases including cancers. Merck Research Labs is using a human monoclonal antibody in clinical trials right now. This experiment will crystallize it.
Here’s NASA describing the background of the experiment and what they hope to accomplish.
Preserving these antibodies in crystals allows researchers a glimpse into how the biological molecules are arranged, which can provide new information about how they work in the body. Thus far, Earth-grown crystalline suspensions of monoclonal antibodies have proven to be too low-quality to fully model. With the absence of gravity and convection aboard the station, larger crystals with more pure compositions and structures can grow.
The results of this investigation have the potential to improve the way monoclonal antibody treatments are administered on Earth. Crystallizing the antibodies could enable methods for large-scale delivery through injections rather than intravenously, and improve methods for long-term storage.
Check out the full page to learn more about other crystal experiments and how they could one day help treat diseases on Earth.
1.2 million tomato seeds are also making the trip to the ISS. Called the Tomatosphere 5 investigation, this experiment is more of an outreach program. The seeds will return to Earth where students across Canada and the U.S. will grow them, and seeds that remained on Earth, in a blind study. How does spaceflight affect germination rates? Growth? Those are the questions the next set of potential astronauts will tackle.
Another important piece of gear included in the nearly 5,500 pounds of stuff is the Raven module. The instruments aboard (including three optical instruments) will spend two years testing technologies that will revolutionize how we operate in low-Earth orbit.
“Two spacecraft autonomously rendezvousing is crucial for many future NASA missions and Raven is maturing this never-before-attempted technology,” said Ben Reed, deputy division director, for the Satellite Servicing Projects Division (SSPD) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The technology pioneered by Raven will help make the maintenance of satellites a reality. Imagine an autonomous satellite meeting up with an aging satellite to fix it and give it more fuel to continue to remain operational many years longer than it was originally intended. Raven will help NASA get to that point.
“One upcoming application for this technology is its use in the Restore-L servicing mission which will navigate to refuel Landsat 7, a U.S. government Earth-observing satellite already in orbit,” NASA writes.
Today was another big day for SpaceX and space travel. Another landed first stage. Another successful launch. And another resupply mission to the ISS. For the ISS crew? The second half of this week will be a busy one.
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