Putting on a spectacular evening sky show, a Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Thursday and boosted a Dragon cargo ship into orbit, loaded with nearly three tons of supplies, equipment and science gear bound for the International Space Station.
The research equipment includes a $118 million instrument that will be mounted outside the station to study the mineral composition of dust blown into the atmosphere from desert regions around the world in order to learn more about how those widely dispersed materials affect the environment.
Also on board: apples, oranges, cherry tomatoes, onions, baby carrots, garlic, tahini, cheese and dry sausage for the astronauts.
"A really nice mix of fresh fruit for the crew," said Dana Weigel, deputy program manager of the ISS at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
When the Dragon capsule returns to Earth in a little more than a month, it will bring back a spacesuit worn by German astronaut Matthias Maurer during a March spacewalk, or EVA, to find out what caused a small amount of water to leak into his helmet.
While the incident was not nearly as serious as a 2013 water intrusion that flooded Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet, normal spacewalks have been suspended until the issue is resolved.
"That's really key for us, we've got to get (Maurer's) suit home to take a look at it ... to really try to understand what happened," Weigel said. "And that'll be part of what we need for our assessment for our eventual readiness when we look at returning back to nominal EVAs."
SpaceX's CRS-25 cargo run got underway at 8:44 p.m. EDT, when the Falcon 9's first stage engines ignited, throttled up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust, and smoothly pushed the rocket away from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.
Making its fifth flight, the Falcon 9 first stage dropped away and flew itself to a successful landing on a SpaceX barge 7 ½ minutes after liftoff. One minute after that, the second stage finished the climb to space, and three minutes later, the Dragon cargo ship was released to fly on its it own.
The deep twilight climb out of the atmosphere provided a riveting show for area residents and tourists, as the rocket ascended into sunlight with the exhaust plume from its engines billowing outward in a comet-like display, as one stage headed for orbit, and the other toward landing.
"It really was a beautiful launch, and I'm excited to see CRS-25 Dragon headed to the space station," said Dina Contella, space station operations integration manager. "So congratulations to everybody at SpaceX, and I know our scientists and cargo providers are looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labors arriving at ISS."
At the moment of launch, the ISS was sailing 260 miles above the South Pacific Ocean, about 20 minutes away from passing directly over the Kennedy Space Center. The Dragon was launched directly into the plane of that orbit, a requirement for rendezvous missions.
Over the next two days, the spacecraft will carry out a series of carefully choreographed rocket firings to catch up with the lab, moving in from behind and below before looping up to a point directly ahead of the outpost.
From there, the Dragon will slowly move in for docking at the Harmony module's forward port around 11:20 a.m. Saturday.
The Dragon's unpressurized trunk section is carrying 1,200 pounds of equipment: a battery charge-discharge unit for the station's solar power system, and NASA's Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, or EMIT, instrument.
Developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, EMIT will use imaging spectroscopy to measure the mineral composition of dust blown into the atmosphere from desert regions around the world to learn more how such materials are transported, how they affect temperature, air quality and the environment in general.
The Dragon's pressurized compartment, the section accessible by the astronauts inside the space station, is packed with 829 pounds of crew supplies, 2,468 pounds of science gear, 400 pounds of spacewalk equipment, 724 pounds of station hardware and 72 pounds of computer equipment.
"This is going to be a really busy mission for us, it's packed with a lot of science," Weigel said.
The Dragon visit kicks off a busy few months for the ISS program, as training ramps up for Russian Soyuz and NASA Crew Dragon astronaut rotation flights expected in September.
The Crew Dragon flight will carry two NASA rookies, Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, veteran Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Anna Kikina, a Russian cosmonaut making her first flight.
Kikina's presence on the Crew 5 Dragon is expected as part of a seat-swap NASA is negotiating with the Russian space agency to ensure there is always at least one Russian and one American aboard the station even if an emergency forces a Soyuz or Dragon capsule to depart early with all its crew members.
Assuming the seat swap is finalized as expected, the next Soyuz crew launch, set for mid-September, will carry two cosmonauts -veteran Sergey Prokopyev and rookie Dmitry Petelin - to the ISS, along with NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, also making his first flight.
Despite Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and Cold War-like East-West relations, "we're hopeful that we're pretty close to finalizing the agreement," Weigel said.
"It is in the final stages of review with both NASA and Roscosmos," Weigel went on. "Anna Kikina continues training with Crew 5 per the normal plan. Similarly, Frank Rubio's been training with the Soyuz crew. So their crew training's in good shape."
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