SpaceX Dragon Capsule Returns To Earth With 2 Tons Of Science Gear

The Dragon cargo ship made it back home on the same day NASA launched the InShight Mars lander, after its return to Earth was delayed for three days.

SpaceX Dragon orbiting the planet Earth.
NASA images / Shutterstock

The Dragon cargo ship made it back home on the same day NASA launched the InShight Mars lander, after its return to Earth was delayed for three days.

After a month of preparation, SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule has finally returned to Earth on May 5, safely delivering its precious cargo, Space.com reports.

The Dragon cargo capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at about 3 p.m. EDT (12 p.m. PDT, 19:00 GMT), a few hours after leaving the International Space Station (ISS).

“Good splashdown of Dragon confirmed, completing SpaceX’s third resupply mission to and from the Space Station with a flight-proven spacecraft,” the company tweeted right after the capsule arrived back on Earth.

This is SpaceX’s 14th resupply mission for NASA, in a series of 20 cargo launches that Elon Musk’s company has been contracted to perform by the U.S. space agency, notes Spaceflight Now. It is also the second mission that uses this particular Dragon capsule, which this time brought back from space 4,000 pounds (1,800 kilograms) of scientific equipment and experiments.

The white resupply vessel was retrieved by a SpaceX recovery team from about 400 miles (650 kilometers) southwest of Long Beach, California, and afterwards returned to the Port of Los Angeles. Initially, the Dragon capsule was intended to make the journey home on May 2, but rough sea conditions at the splashdown zone prompted a three-day delay.

The Dragon capsule had been detached from the ISS by the station’s robotic arm at 9:23 a.m. EDT (13:23 GMT), just a few hours after NASA launched the unique InSight mission to Mars.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine marked the incredibly eventful day with a post on Twitter.

The video below captures the Dragon capsule as it is leaving the ISS and heading out on its trip back to Earth. Roscosmos’ astronaut Oleg Artemyev, currently found onboard the space station as part of the Expedition 55 crew, also tweeted images of the SpaceX resupply capsule undocking from Earth’s orbiting laboratory.

Among the two tons of gear and science experiments brought home by the Dragon capsule are mice that have been living in orbit so that researchers can study the effects of zero gravity on bone structure.

“Other critical biological samples preserved in science freezers, such as plants, insects and human tissue, have also been transferred into Dragon for retrieval and analysis,” NASA said in a statement prior to the capsule’s return.

NASA’s robotic space station crewmember, Robonaut 2, also got a ride home on the SpaceX Dragon capsule. The robot was designed to help astronauts with their daily chores in space and has been returned to Earth for repairs after it broke down in 2014.

“The plan is to bring this one down, understand why it failed, and then make the decision of where we want to go in the future,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy space station program manager.

Before Robonaut 2 made it home, the Expedition 55 crewmembers said their friendly goodbyes as they were packing the Dragon cargo. NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold even took some fun snapshots with the robot’s mask and posted them on Twitter a day before SpaceX’s cargo capsule left for Earth.

The reused Dragon capsule, which first flew to the ISS in April 2016 on an earlier resupply mission for NASA, has spent about a month docked to the space station, after arriving there on April 2. The capsule was launched into space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and initially delivered 5,800 pounds (2,630 kilograms) of gear and supplies to the ISS’s six-person crew.

According to Phys.org, SpaceX’s Dragon is currently the only cargo ship designed to return to Earth intact. NASA also has a contract with Orbital ATK to use the company’s Cygnus cargo carriers, but these burn up on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. The Cygnus cargo freighter will be handling the next ISS delivery scheduled for May 20, notes Spaceflight Now.