(Sen) - SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is on its way to the space station after being launched today aboard the company's Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The eagerly anticipated launch took place at 3.44 EDT after a series of delays including a last second abort on Saturday May 19. The Dragon craft was safely put into orbit and its solar powered arrays deployed successfully.
Elon Musk, the entrepreneur who founded SpaceX, was hugely relieved at the successful launch and told his Twitter followers: "Falcon flew perfectly!! Dragon in orbit, comm locked and solar arrays active!! Feels like a giant weight just came off my back :)"
Dragon is the first privately operated spacecraft to attempt to dock with the International Space Station. The mission is SpaceX's second demonstration flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program under which NASA is contracting with commercial business to transport cargo to the space station.
During the mission Dragon has to perform a series of tasks before it can attempt the docking. Dragon's sensors and flight systems will be tested, as well as a series of controlled maneouvres. On day 3 of the mission Dragon will come within 1.5 miles of the space station, and NASA will decide on day 4 if the spacecraft will be permitted to attempt docking.
The docking procedure, if it goes ahead, requires incredible precision as both the craft and station orbit Earth at approximately 27,700 kilometres per hour. The docking involves a robotic arm on the station capturing Dragon. If Dragon docks successfully, the astronauts will open the hatch on day 5 of the mission and unload the student experiments and supplies it is carrying. The spacecraft will be filled with cargo trash for its return to Earth in a couple of weeks time.
This is the third launch the Falcon 9 rocket and the second flight of Dragon. After a successful dragonless debut launch in June 2010, the next Falcon 9 flew in December 2010 carrying a Dragon which made two orbits before splashing down as planned in the Pacific.
Dragon uses deployable solar arrays as its main power source and is also being developed to carry up to seven astronauts. This demonstration flight will provide SpaceX with valuable experience and data that will be assist its continued development as a crew carrying capsule.
If the current mission is a success, SpaceX will prepare to fulfil its obligations under its Commercial Resupply Service contract, awarded by NASA in December 2008, to provide 12 cargo supply missions to the space station.
Artist’s impression of Dragon docked with the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX
Whilst SpaceX should be the first private company to supply the space station, another U.S. company is preparing to show NASA what it can do. Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) is also working with NASA under the COTS program having been selected in 2008.
Orbital is planning its first COTS test flight of its Cygnus spacecraft, to be launched atop of their Antares rocket, in the third quarter of 2012 followed by a demonstration flight to the ISS in the final quarter of 2012. Orbital, like SpaceX, also won a Commercial Resupply Services contract from NASA in December 2008. Orbital's is for 8 supply missions.
Providing the demonstration flights meet with NASA's approval, Orbital anticipates making its first cargo delivery to the ISS in the first quarter of 2013.
The COTS projects are managed by NASA's Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO). C3PO has the goal of creating a successful commercial space industry in the U.S. capable of providing safe, reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit.
According to NASA, COTS is "helping spur the innovation and development of new spacecraft and launch vehicles from commercial industry, creating a new way of delivering cargo to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station."
If successful, Orbital and SpaceX will add to the existing range of cargo ships that regularly supply the ISS, including Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Russia's Progress supply ship.