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SpaceX Falcon with Dragon
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket rises from its Florida launch pad. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX launched a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station tonight with a couple of precedent-setting payloads on opposite ends of the size spectrum: a 5-foot-wide docking adapter, which was built by Boeing to accommodate future commercial space taxis; and the first DNA sequencer destined for use in space, which is about the size of a candy bar.

The Falcon 9 rocket rose into the night at 12:45 a.m. ET Monday (9:45 p.m. PT Sunday) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Minutes later, the Falcon 9’s second stage and the uncrewed Dragon separated from the first stage and continued on to orbit. Meanwhile, the first stage flew itself back to Florida’s Space Coast and touched down at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, near the launch pad.

“LZ-1, Falcon 9 has landed,” SpaceX’s mission control announced. The news was greeted with whoops and hollers from hundreds of SpaceX employees who gathered at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

Floridians heard a thunderous sonic boom as the booster descended.

The touchdown maneuver worked back in December when SpaceX tried it for the first time, after sending 11 Orbcomm telecommunication satellites into space. Since then, SpaceX has successfully landed Falcon first stages three times at sea. Tonight marked SpaceX’s second attempt to land the booster on solid ground – and its second success.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of flight reliability, said the booster seemed to survive the landing just fine, if a little blackened, and would be “probably ready soon to fly again.”

SpaceX is working to recover its first-stage Falcon 9 boosters in order to pave the way for rocket reusability and cheaper access to space. Even if the landing failed, that would have had no bearing on the success of the resupply mission – just as long as the Dragon got to its proper orbit.

That was a problem a year ago, when a Falcon 9 rocket broke up shortly after launch. That failure resulted in the loss of a Dragon shipment that was carrying the same type of docking adapter included in tonight’s payload. This time around, the Dragon was upgraded with a launch abort system that was designed to save the capsule and its payload even if the rocket failed.

Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary. Dragon reached orbit successfully and unfurled its solar panels.

NASA needs to have the Boeing-built International Docking Adapter installed on the station’s Harmony module in order to link up correctly with the crew-carrying spaceships that SpaceX and Boeing are building. The first such space taxi could be ready for a space station visit as early as next year.

The 5,000 pounds of cargo packed aboard the Dragon also includes the palm-sized MinION DNA sequencer. NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, a biologist who moved into the station earlier this month, will test the device with prepared DNA samples from a type of bacteria, a virus and a mouse during her stint in orbit. The results will be compared with readings conducted on Earth.

Eventually, such devices could be used for medical applications as well as studies focusing on how the space environment affects mutations and other genetic processes.

Other experiments aboard the Dragon are designed to study how heart cells and bone cells behave in zero gravity, how to build computers that are more resilient to space radiation, and how to improve the efficiency of space solar cells.

The payload also includes more mundane types of cargo, such as food, water and clothing. This is the ninth supply mission under the terms of a multibillion-dollar contract with NASA.

If all goes well, the Dragon should rendezvous with the space station on Wednesday. In the meantime, a robotic Russian Progress cargo craft that was launched on Saturday is due to dock with the station on Monday night – which means the crew could be dealing with a double delivery this week.

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