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SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from its Florida launch pad. (NASA via YouTube)

SpaceX sent nearly three tons of supplies, hardware and experiments to the International Space Station today, using a Falcon 9 rocket booster and a Dragon capsule that have both been flown before.

The rocket rose from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 4:30 p.m. ET (1:30 p.m. PT).

“We had a perfectly nominal mission, as we like around here,” SpaceX launch commentator John Federspiel said during a webcast from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. “Falcon 9 performed its job splendidly.”

It’s the second “refurbish-and-reuse” mission of its kind. The first flight of a refurbished Falcon 9 first-stage booster with a reused Dragon took place last December.

This time around, SpaceX made use of a booster that launched a different Dragon resupply mission last August. The Dragon for today’s mission was previously flown to the space station and back two years ago.

There won’t be a third go-round for this booster. SpaceX is upgrading its Falcon 9 rocket technology and didn’t plan to do further refurbishments on the rocket being launched today. Instead, the first stage descended and went through an exercise that tested re-entry maneuvers for future boosters.

Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s Dragon mission manager, said the booster made a “hard landing” in the Atlantic.

The uncrewed Dragon capsule is now on track to catch up with the space station for a rendezvous on Wednesday. Astronauts will use the station’s robotic arm to bring the Dragon in for its hookup, and start the process of unloading 5,800 pounds of payload.

  • In addition to the usual food, water and other basics, the cargo includes a wide range of scientific experiments:
  • The Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor will survey severe thunderstorms in Earth’s atmosphere and upper-atmospheric lightning from a perch on the exterior of the European Space Agency’s Columbus module. ASIM will focus on weird phenomena known as red sprites, blue jets and elves.
  • The NASA Sample Cartridge Assembly, also known as the MSL SCA-GEDS-German experiment, is aimed at determining the scientific principles for a fabrication process known as liquid phase sintering. The technology can be used to 3-D print metal parts, but it’s trickier to do in zero gravity than it is on Earth.
  • The Materials ISS Experiment Flight Facility, or MISSE-FF, will provide a platform for testing how materials, coatings, and components react in the harsh environment of space, including radiation exposure, cycles of heating and cooling, and hits by micrometeoroids. MISSE-FF is the latest in a series of MISSE experiments to test materials in space. Past experiments had to be installed during spacewalks, but this one can be put into place using the station’s robotic arm.
  • Comparative Real-Time Metabolic Activity Tracking for Improved Therapeutic Assessment Screening Panels examines zero gravity’s effects on the metabolic impact of five different therapeutic compounds, using an experimental type of bioluminescent human tissue culture.

Over the course of a month, the station’s astronauts will unload the Dragon and repack it with more than 3,900 pounds of cargo to be returned to Earth. One of the payloads will be NASA’s Robonaut 2, an arm-equipped android that has broken down.

“We’ve had, we believe, an issue with the ‘brain stem’ of the Robonaut, so we’ll bring it home, take a look at it. That’s our best assessment of what we think is the problem,” Joel Montalbano, deputy manager of NASA’s space station program, told reporters.

“The engineering teams will go ahead and take a look at it, and see what the next steps are,” he said. “Do you fly it again? Can we fix it? What happened, and why did it break?”

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