SpaceX has let a dragon loose, but instead of breathing fire, this particular Dragon is flying an invaluable science payload above the atmosphere.
The Dragon spacecraft was recently launched on a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The Dragon, on mission SpX-12, was deployed into low Earth orbit 10 minutes, then took off for the International Space Station. While this Dragon doesn’t breathe fire or hoard precious metals, what it’s been tasked to carry to the ISS is more valuable than all the gold and jewels stashed in Smaug’s cave. An astounding 75 percent of its 5-ton payload is for science. Now, that’s gold.
“With the internal and external payloads that we have going up, it sets a new bar for the amount of research that we’ve been able to get on this flight,” said NASA ISS deputy manager Dan Hartman.
Dragon was the bearer of several diverse scientific investigations, with its most impressive payload being the Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) or ISS-CREAM astrophysics experiment, which will later be mounted on Japanese Module Kibo and zero in on cosmic rays that flash through space at nearly the speed of light. Particles ranging from carbon and hydrogen atoms to protons and iron nuclei constantly bounce around in these rays. They body-slam particles in Earth’s atmosphere and trigger a burst of secondary particles. Earthbound instruments can only detect the secondary particles, but ISS-CREAM will have the advantage of being able to see everything since it will be floating above the atmosphere. It will also be able to shed light on the emergence of high-energy cosmic rays.
Satellites carried by the Dragon include the U.S. Army’s Kestral Eye Imaging Satellite, which will seriously level up space-based military intelligence using proto nanosatellites, and NASA’s Dellingr cubesat, developed at its Goddard Space Flight Center for performing science experiments and tech demos in space.
Another mind-blowing study that flew on the Dragon’s proverbial wings is an unprecedented Parkinson’s Disease experiment. Funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, its mission is to grow protein crystals linked to the degenerative disease. Biological research being carried by the Dragon also includes a stem cell trial that will grow lung tissue in space to test the effects of microgravity on the process. The results of this research could be used as a potential treatment for lung disease.
Also aboard the Dragon was the Spaceborne Computer, which will stay in orbit aboard the ISS for a year to determine whether software can compensate for specialized hardware in space.
Another Dragon will be blasting through the atmosphere to the ISS this December. If this one is any indication, the next might take even more treasure.