NASA announced Friday that 7 February 2012 has been set as the preliminary target date for Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to launch its Dragon cargo capsule on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The mission will launch the Dragon atop the Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft will approach the space station and fly by at a distance of about two miles. Dragon will demonstrate station keeping, testing sensors and flight systems necessary for a safe rendezvous, and the ability to abort an approach if necessary.
Once these objectives have been met, the Dragon capsule will make its final approach and the station crew will grapple the vehicle with the station’s robotic arm. The capsule will be berthed to the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node.
The Dragon capsule will carry non-essential supplies and equipment and remain at the station for about two weeks. It will then detach and return to Earth where it will be recovered after splashdown in the Pacific off the coast of California. Dragon made a successful flight a year ago. If successful, the demonstration flight would prove SpaceX’s readiness to begin unmanned cargo deliveries to the station under a $1.6 billion NASA contract.
Voicing typical caution, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate stated that:
Illustrating the size of the Dragon spacecraft, astronauts Cady Coleman and Mark Kelly examine the interior of the Dragon.
Below is a cutaway view of the arrangement of the cargo racks inside the Dragon capsule. Dragon is capable of delivering 6,000 kg (13,228 lbs) of payload up-mass to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and 3,000 kg (6,614 lbs) of payload down-mass upon the return to Earth. By comparison, the Russian Progress resupply vessels deliver about 2,700 kg of mass to LEO.