A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Dragon cargo spacecraft toward the International Space Station today (April 2) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, hauling nearly 3 tons of experiments and supplies, including a lightning tracker, a materials-science facility, two student genetics experiments and much more.
You can watch SpaceX's 14th cargo launch online here at Space.com, courtesy of NASA; the launch is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. EDT (2030 GMT). This is the Dragon's second flight to the orbiting lab; it first launched back in April 2016 on SpaceX's eighth cargo mission. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket lifting it to space first launched in August 2017, on the company's 12th cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station.
When the Dragon arrives at the space station on Wednesday (April 4), Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai will grapple the craft with the station's robotic arm, Canadarm2, with help from NASA astronaut Scott Tingle, and ground crew will use the arm to berth the spacecraft with the station. Then, the crew will begin the long job of unloading the crew's supplies, spacewalk equipment, vehicle hardware, computer resources and science investigations within. [Infographic: How SpaceX's Dragon Space Capsule Works]
Dragon will deliver more than 5,800 lbs. (2,630 kilograms) of food, gear and other astronaut supplies when it arrives Wednesday. Those supplies will support 50 of the 250 experiments on the space station, according to Pete Hasbrook, associate program scientist for the International Space Station program at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Hasbrook said during a news teleconference on March 19 that some of the experiments will study space biology — comparing the growth of different plants on the space station, and studying microgravity interactions between fruit flies and wasps, to name two — and others will investigate the influence of a space environment on bone marrow and blood production, wound healing, the manufacture of metal alloys and semiconductors in microgravity and more.
Outside the space station, once it's installed, an Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor experiment will survey severe thunderstorms in Earth's atmosphere and monitor upper-atmosphere lightning, which are not yet well understood. In addition, the Materials ISS Experiment Flight Facility, which will also sit outside, will provide a platform to test how materials and coatings survive the radiation, atomic oxygen, charged particles and swings in temperature outside the space station.
The Dragon spacecraft also brings a continuation of a student contest exploring gene sequencing in space.
"From the education viewpoint, one of the most exciting payloads going up among those this year is the third round of the Genes in Space competition," Michael Roberts, deputy chief scientist at the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, said during the news teleconference. "In this third round, two experiments were expected as winners from the 2017 competition — Elizabeth Reizis, age 14, from Stuyvesant High School in New York, who will examine the effects of microgravity on the differentiation of immune system cells, and Sophia Chen, age 14, from Lakeside High School in Washington, whose project aims to measure cancer-inducing genomic instability in astronauts."
"Both of these experiments have direct application here on Earth, in that each of these effects are manifested themselves on Earth as we age, and the use of polymerase chain reaction and other technologies has proven to be very valuable in not only diagnosing these effects on humans, but also looking at new therapeutic treatments to increase our ability to treat them here on Earth," he added.
This will be the first cargo delivery since NASA astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold arrived at the space station on March 23 with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev. They're having a busy start to the mission; less than a week after their arrival, the two astronauts aced a demanding spacewalk. The new arrivals — along with Tingle, Kanai and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov — will have to work hard to unload before the Dragon's return to Earth, currently slated for May.
"Looking ahead, at the end of its berth mission, Dragon brings home science samples from many experiments in the field of biology, in plants and protein crystal growth and cell research, as well as human research," Hasbrook said during the news teleconference. "It also brings home hardware for experiments that have completed their on-orbit operations, such as on-orbit monitoring, advanced computing and [an] Earth-observation experiment. Dragon is also going to bring home the Robonaut, which will be repaired and is expected to launch again on a future cargo mission."