NASA and SpaceX Launch a Shiny New Airlock and a Christmas Feast to the ISS

NASA and SpaceX Launch a Shiny New Airlock and a Christmas Feast to the ISS
Launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon resupply spacecraft on December 6, 2020. (Image: NASA Television)

Crew supplies, a new airlock, some spare parts, and a bunch of science experiments are currently en route to the International Space Station, following yesterday’s successful launch of an upgraded SpaceX Dragon resupply vehicle.

The CRS-21 mission launch happened yesterday at 3:27 a.m. AEDT, as a SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida (it marked the fourth flight for this particular booster, which then landed successfully on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean). For SpaceX, this marks its 21st resupply mission for the space agency, according to NASA. The spacecraft, with its 2,900 kg of cargo, is set to arrive at the ISS at 5:40 a.m. AEDT today.

The docking (which you can watch on NASA TV) will happen autonomously, in what will be a first for a SpaceX resupply vehicle. The Dragon being used for this mission is an upgraded version of the spacecraft, called the Dragon 2 Cargo Capsule, and it features 12 powered lockers instead of the usual six. These powered cargo holds allow for the preservation of sensitive samples during transport to the orbital outpost and then back to Earth. A total of four powered lockers are being used for the current mission.

Interestingly, this marks the first time that SpaceX has two Dragon capsules in orbit at the same time, the Verge reports. A Dragon is currently docked to the ISS, and with the arrival of the new Dragon 2, that’ll make two.

Dragon spacecraft specifications.  (Image: NASA)Dragon spacecraft specifications. (Image: NASA)

Among the various supplies on board, the Dragon is a Christmas feast consisting of roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, shortbread cookies, and icing, the Associated Press reports. It’s also delivering spacewalk equipment, vehicle hardware, computer resources, some Russian hardware, and equipment to run science experiments.

More specifically, the crew will be receiving upgrades to the Water Processor Assembly, spare parts and consumables (e.g. disinfectant wipes) for the newly added $US23 ($31) million toilet (which will be needed to accommodate the crew of seven), 40 mice, new hardware to house said rodents, and a one-handed tape dispenser designed by high school students as part of NASA’s HUNCH challenge.

Summary of the Dragon's cargo manifest.  (Image: NASA)Summary of the Dragon’s cargo manifest. (Image: NASA)

Excitingly, the ISS is getting a new toy in the form of the Nanorocks Bishop Airlock, along with an installation kit for the crew. This will be the first commercially owned and operated airlock on the space station. Once installed, the crew will use the airlock to deploy small satellites (including Cubesats) and equipment meant for the ISS exterior, among other things. The airlock will also be used to deploy and recover hardware used for spacewalks.

“Roughly five times larger than the airlock on the Japanese Experiment Module already in use on the station, the Bishop Airlock allows robotic movement of more and larger packages to the exterior of the space station, including hardware to support spacewalks,” according to NASA. “It also provides capabilities such as power and ethernet required for internal and external payloads.”

As if this won’t be enough to keep the crew busy over the next six months, they’ll also have to run a slew of science experiments. This will include biomining experiments to assess how well microorganisms, including fungi, can harvest rare-earth elements from rocks and meteorite samples in microgravity conditions. The crew will also test the effects of microgravity on heart tissue, brain organoids (living masses of brain cells), and the counts of white blood cells, the latter of which is an important biomarker of health.

The crew will also run the SUBSA-BRAINS experiment, aka the BRazing of Aluminium alloys IN Space. Brazing (not to be confused with braising, that’s something else), is a type of soldering used to bond materials. As NASA points out, the crew will test the technique on aluminium alloys, in what’s deemed a potential solution for the “repair of damaged space vehicles/habitats, and for construction in the microgravity of space or in human habitats.”

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This will all make for some interesting next few months, and we’ll be watching all of these developments closely. Hopefully conditions aboard the ISS will be less, uh, dramatic than they’ve been in recent months.