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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

A Dragon departs… in 4k

By Phil Plait
The SpaceX CRS-15 Dragon capsule departs the International Space Station to return to Earth in August 2018. Credit: ESA

On August 3, 2018, a SpaceX Dragon capsule loaded with 1,700 kilograms of cargo was plucked off the International Space Station by the robotic arm and sent on its way back to Earth.

This is a delicate operation, taking quite a bit of time, and resembles nothing so much as a space ballet… and in fact, just as with dance, timing is everything. The capsule has to be in place by a certain time so that it can use its thrusters to deorbit, putting it on the correct trajectory to land just off the west coast of the U.S. in the Pacific Ocean.

Such a performance is a delight and wonder to see, and now — thanks to the European Space Agency — you can see it in stunning 4k resolution! They released a video of the process that you simply have to watch on the biggest monitor you can, and make sure it’s at full res.

Wow. The first view is out the ISS hatch as the Dragon is pulled back, but then it switches to an outside camera where you can see the arm going through the motions of moving the Dragon away. This is a time-lapse video, but you can judge how long this process takes: You can see the Sun set and then rise again during the procedure, so that part alone took 45 minutes: half of the ISS 90-minute orbit.

Some time later the capsule is released, again over the Earth’s night side. The lights of a city 400 kilometers below drift by, and then a large series of thunderstorms flashing as lightning momentarily illuminates the clouds.

I’m not even kidding when I say that video like this (and huge images of astronomical objects) is why I splurged a bit to get a bigger higher-resolution monitor when I replaced my old, dying desktop recently. Totally worth it.

The Dragon was launched on the last of the Block 4 Falcon 9 rockets in late June, the 15th Commercial Resupply Service mission for SpaceX, and it docked on ISS a few days later. More about the mission, and fascinating details of the procedure to deorbit, can be found on (Note: That’s not an official NASA site, but I find it extremely informative.)

The next Dragon CRS launch is scheduled for November, and it will be the first on the new Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 full-thrust rocket, which features higher thrust and improved landing legs. SpaceX plans to only need to inspect the rocket between launches up to about ten repeats, then refurbish as necessary… with a possible 100 flights of each booster possible!

I’ll note that the Block 5 is what will be used to launch astronauts into space, possibly as early as later this year (though more realistically sometime next year). NASA announced the astronauts for SpaceX and Boeing flights in August. It’ll be very nice indeed to see astronauts launched by American rockets from American soil once again.

Tip o’ the nose cone to the Teslarati account on Twitter for the news on this video.