Yesterday, July 3, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft returned to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) – and we were rewarded with some rather incredible photos in the process.
Dragon had arrived at the station on June 5, having launched on June 3. It had flown to the station before, in September 2014, making this SpaceX’s first spacecraft ever to go to space twice.
It left the station at 2.41am EDT (7.41am BST). As it drifted away, NASA astronaut Jack Fischer was able to snap a remarkable picture of the glint of the spacecraft as it headed towards our atmosphere. You can see that picture up above.
“Beautiful expanse of stars - but the ‘long’ orange one is SpaceX-11 reentering!” he wrote on Twitter. “Congrats team for a successful splashdown & great mission!”
This wasn’t the only amazing picture Fischer snapped, though. On July 2, he also showed off an amazing image of the spacecraft attached to the spacecraft’s robotic arm. Here you can see its solar panels fully extended, with the shadow of part of the station on them.
Then the following day, he took another shot – all presumably from the station’s Columbus module – as Dragon started drifting towards Earth. Here the sunlight casts a gorgeous orange glow on the spacecraft, as it lowered its orbit to re-enter the atmosphere.
For SpaceX, this mission – their 11th scheduled cargo trip to the ISS – is a huge achievement. They’ve already proven their Falcon 9 rocket can be reusable, and now they’ve shown their spacecraft can be too. This has major implications for reducing the cost of spaceflight in the future.
But this is not the only reusable spacecraft to visit the ISS, or indeed make it to orbit. You might remember a little something called the Space Shuttle. NASA’s five orbiters made multiple repeat trips to orbit, with the last being Atlantis in July 2011 on the STS-135 mission.
Dragon is unique in that it can return large amounts of cargo to Earth, something other spacecraft cannot currently do. On this mission, it returned 1,900 kilograms (4,100 pounds) of cargo, which includes live mice that had been used in an experiment. Sadly, these mice will be euthanized and examined after landing, even if they survive the trek. So it goes.
To end on a more positive note, Dragon also returned plenty of other interesting science experiments, including a fruit fly investigation that had been carried to the station almost 10 years ago. And we’ve now got a fully-fledged reusable spacecraft in operation. That’s not bad, right?