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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

SpaceX Reveals Its New Dragon Space Capsule

By Phil Plait

In a press conference last night, Elon Musk, CEO of the private space company SpaceX, unveiled the new Dragon V2, the company's next-generation crewed space vehicle. Here’s the video from the event, which is well worth the 18 or so minutes to watch.

(At about four minutes in there is a very well-done animation showing the capsule's anticipated operation in space and landing; watch that part at least.)

I have to say, it’s pretty cool looking. It bears a strong resemblance to the uncrewed Dragon capsule that has already been launched to the International Space Station several times successfully. There are some key differences, of course. It’s outfitted for humans (not just for cargo transport like the current version) and can carry seven astronauts to the ISS. That’s a big deal; right now the Russian Soyuz can only carry three.

The control center is pretty spiffy, too, and looks the way you’d expect a futuristic spaceship to look: elegant, with a large multipanel screen and controls splayed around the pilot seat. It’s very roomy, and looks far less cramped than the Russian Soyuz capsule. It really reminds me of the rockets from the old black and white movies I watched as a kid, where there weren’t really very many buttons and switches, and the seats were spread out. It’ll be interesting to see what seasoned astronauts have to say about it once they get to try it out. Update, May 30, 2014 at 15:50 UTC: I'm still looking for more details; there's not much on the SpaceX site. But it looks to me that the interior is not yet finished, and more things may be installed. I'll see what I can find out and update this post again when I get more.

Another major difference is that the Dragon V2 is outfitted with eight SuperDraco thrusters (in four sets of two around the bottom of the capsule) that allow the capsule to return from space and land vertically on landing legs. It has a blunt back end that will act as a heat shield to slow the capsule initially as it re-enters our atmosphere, and then the rockets take over when it’s lower to the ground; there’s a parachute backup in case of any trouble with the thrusters. These thrusters allow the capsule to land essentially anywhere, “like a helicopter,” Musk said.

They also act as a Launch Escape System, an emergency escape option. The U.S. government has safety requirements for any rocket carrying humans that must be adhered to, and one is that an LES is installed in case of a catastrophic launch problem. If your rocket is exploding underneath you, you want to get out, and fast. The SuperDraco thrusters generate 16,000 pounds of thrust each, so there’s plenty of oomph to get the capsule out in a hurry.

The capsule can also dock to the ISS autonomously, or under human control (the current capsule needs to be brought in to dock using the ISS robotic arm). Also, the lower trunk will have a wraparound solar panel system for power, instead of the wings sticking out the sides.

All in all, a pretty amazing machine. It really does look like the future.

In April 2014, a SuperDraco engine went through a test firing, and it’s rather cool to watch:

On its Web page, SpaceX talks about the thrusters landing the capsule, and I find the way they phrased this interesting indeed (emphasis mine): The SuperDraco thruster is “an engine that will power the Dragon spacecraft's launch escape system and enable the vehicle to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

Hmmmm. Sounds like they have some big plans for it.

By coincidence—probably—this big reveal from SpaceX happens literally the day news comes down that NASA has bought what may be the last tickets it will purchase for seats on a Russian Soyuz rocket. Rising prices and increasingly difficult relations with Russia are behind this, and the tickets are good through late 2017, when it’s expected private companies like SpaceX (as well as Boeing and Colorado’s own Sierra Nevada) will start taking humans into space again.

I await that day very eagerly indeed. The Soyuz rockets are amazingly dependable, but their government increasingly isn’t. I’d much rather rely on homegrown tech, and SpaceX has really been proving itself every step of the way. I have big hopes that when the other companies get their own craft up and ready, the American space program will take a giant leap forward once again.

Correction, May 30, 2014 at 15:45 UTC: I originally wrote that the capsule is human-rated, but that has a technical definition that it has passed the requirements needed for human flight. It has not yet done so, so I fixed the text to say it is "crewed".

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