SpaceX set to launch CRS-16 Dragon to ISS
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Following the successful static fire test of a Block 5 Falcon 9 booster on Friday, Nov. 30, SpaceX appears ready to launch its Dragon resupply spacecraft on the company’s 16th operational mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The mission, designated SpaceX CRS-16 (Commercial Resupply Services 16), is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida, at 1:38 p.m. EST (18:38 GMT) on Dec. 4, 2018. The weather forecast for the instantaneous (one second long) launch window appears to be favorable.
The Dragon spacecraft is loaded with 5,673 lbs. (2,573 kg) of crew supplies, scientific research equipment, and experimental hardware that will support the Expedition 57 and 58 crews in their work aboard the ISS.
The Expedition 58 crew of Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut David Sainte-Jacques, and NASA astronaut Anne McClain are scheduled to lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in their Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft on December 3, just 36 hours before the scheduled launch of CRS-16. If all goes well, they will be on hand with the Expedition 57 crew of ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev, and NASA astronaut Serena Aunon-Chancellor, when the Dragon spacecraft is expected to arrive at the station on Dec. 6.
Among CRS-16’s manifest of experimental equipment is the Robotic Refueling Mission 3 (RRM3), a technology demonstrator designed to help pioneer techniques for storing and transferring cryogenic spacecraft fuels in space.
As the number indicates, RRM3 is the third phase of an ongoing study, in which the first two phases practiced the robotic tasks of removing caps and valves on spacecraft. The third stage is intended to demonstrate and prove the methods of transferring the cryogenic fluids.
“Any time we get to extend our stay in space is valuable for discovery,” Beth Adams Fogle, RRM3 mission program manager at Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, stated in a press release. “RRM3’s ability to transfer and store cryogenic fluid could alter our current fuel constraints for human exploration.”
The ability to store and replenish cryogenic fuels will be critical to future long duration space flights. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen are critical cryogens for use as fuel and for life support in space or on extraterrestrial surfaces. Also, the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, for example, can be converted into liquid methane and used as a cryogenic fuel in engines for astronauts’ departure from Mars.
“RRM3 will be performing the first ever transfer of liquid methane in space,” Hsiao Smith, deputy director for technical of the Satellite Servicing Project Division at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, told SpaceFlight Insider. “The DEXTRE robotic arm (an Canadian-built robotic arm already on the ISS) will use a fleet of three specialized tools, including a transfer hose and a robotic camera, to make the liquid methane transfer.”
Another instrument package headed to the ISS on CRS-16 is the Global Ecosystems Dynamics Investigation, or GEDI. Pronounced “Jedi” like the heroes of Star Wars fame. GEDI could help scientists create the first three-dimensional map of the world’s temperate and tropical forests. Using lidar instruments, a pulsed laser light that measures the reflected light pulses with sensors, scientists hope to measure the heights of foliage, trees, and shrubs to yield new data on how forests are storing or releasing carbon.
“We can send out a little pulse of light and it travels down, reflects off the surface and comes back,” Bryan Blair, GEDI instrument scientist at NASA Goddard, said in a NASA press release. “We can see and measure how tall the tree is, and we can actually see how dense are the foliage and branches as we go down.”
GEDI is being launched so it can use its three lidar instruments and sensors to generate a detailed map of the planet’s forest canopies. Scientists believe this map will provide data on which forest areas on Earth are the most carbon-rich.
“We know about how much CO2 is in the atmosphere, but we can’t account for it all,” Principal Investigator Ralph Dubayah of the University of Maryland, told Spaceflight Insider. “We strongly suspect that much of it is held in forests. But we haven’t actually been able to prove that, or show where those forests are. GEDI is designed to help us answer some of those questions.”
Another interesting experiment bound for the orbiting lab is the Molecular Muscle investigation. It is also referred to as the “Worms In Space” experiment, as it involves the use of over 30 thousand tiny 1mm-long c-elegans worms.
The worms provide many of the biological analogs of human muscle. They will be carried in bags of liquid food that will keep them nourished throughout the experiment. But the worms will be exposed to microgravity on the station and will experience the same sort of muscular deterioration as astronauts experience during prolonged periods on orbit, which has been shown to be similar to the deterioration that occurs with aging on Earth.
If everything goes as planned, numerous sets of the worms will be exposed to a series of drugs designed to boost the cells’ batteries, or mitochondria, and to increase their intake of calcium.
“We have identified over a lot of previous spaceflight experiments a reproduceable genetic signature that occurs in space,” Dr. Timothy Etheridge, principal investigator for the Molecular Muscle investigation from the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom, told Spaceflight Insider. “These are things that regulate diabetes progression, so glucose handling, but also the ability of other cells to respond to mechanical lodes. So what we are doing for the first time in this study is we are targeting those molecular changes. Rather than just seeing them change, we’re going to target them with interventions and see if we can stop them from happening.”
In addition to these and other experiments, CRS-16 is loaded with 1,178 lbs (534 kg) of crew supplies, vehicle hardware, computer resources, and spacewalk equipment.
The mission will be the maiden voyage for this SpaceX Block 5 Falcon 9 booster, designated booster B1050.1, which arrived to Cape Canaveral from SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas test stand in September. After completing its boost toward orbit and stage separation, the first stage booster is scheduled to return to Cape Canaveral for a landing at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ1).
Although the booster is new, the Dragon spacecraft for this mission is the same one that flew to the ISS on the CRS-10 mission in late 2017.
The Dragon spacecraft is expected to arrive at the ISS on December 6 and be grappled by the Canadarm2, operated by Expedition 57 Commander Alexander Gerst. It is planned to have Gerst position the Dragon to dock with the lower section of the station’s Harmony module, where it will remain attached for about five weeks, while ISS crew unpack the spacecraft and then repack it with completed experiments and other materials for return to Earth. After a scheduled undocking on January 13, 2019, the spacecraft is expected to maneuver for reentry, and splash down for recovery in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, California.
CRS-16 could be considered a case of “no rest for the weary” as its flight should mark the second mission to blast off in two days. The launch of the SSO-A mission is currently scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 2.
Michael Cole is a life-long space flight enthusiast and author of some 36 educational books on space flight and astronomy for Enslow Publishers. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, not far from Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his background in journalism and public relations suit him for his focus on research and development activities at NASA Glenn Research Center, and its Plum Brook Station testing facility, both in northeastern Ohio. Cole reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked to join SFI as the first member of the organization’s “Team Glenn.”