Late Thursday night (Sept. 30) in the southeastern United States, anybody looking up could have glimpsed a brilliant streak, trailing down into the Atlantic Ocean off Florida's east coast. It was actually a SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft returning to Earth after a trip to the International Space Station (ISS).
The Dragon, which flew to the ISS as part of SpaceX's 23rd cargo resupply mission for NASA (CRS-23), had been in space since August. It went to the ISS carrying several tons of supplies, equipment and science experiments for the Expedition 65 crew. Those experiments included a student project from Hasselt University in Belgium and the island country of Malta's first-ever contribution to the ISS: probing the microbes inside the skin of foot ulcers.
Here it is from Newnan, GA pic.twitter.com/oLWipFtVpAOctober 1, 2021
@SpaceX over a Georgia sky pic.twitter.com/vOT98BtitIOctober 1, 2021
After over a month in space, CRS-23 returned to Earth on Thursday. The capsule undocked from the ISS at 9:12 a.m. EDT (1312 GMT), as it was flying over the Pacific Ocean. At 10:07 p.m. EDT (0207 GMT on Friday), the capsule fired its engines to knock itself out of Earth's orbit and begin its descent into the atmosphere.
I’ve seen Falcon 9 rockets fall from the sky and land safely back on Earth, but I’ve never seen a Dragon Spacecraft re-enter the atmosphere. This blazing streak in the sky is @SpaceX bringing its #CRS23 mission to a splashdown off the coast of Florida last night. @elonmusk pic.twitter.com/YMlUA06aYoOctober 1, 2021
Over the next several minutes, the Dragon crossed east over North America, leaving a bright trail in its wake that was visible from all across the Southeastern United States. As it crossed over Florida and Georgia, Earthlings could even hear its loud sonic boom. At 10:57 p.m. EDT (0257 GMT), less than an hour after its first burn, it splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean.
Wow it just flew over my head. A min later a huge sonic boom!!!! #spaceX pic.twitter.com/dNM1ii8x6DOctober 1, 2021
Now, SpaceX and NASA will set about recovering the Dragon capsule and the souvenirs it's brought back from the ISS: several tons' worth of equipment and the results of a few more science experiments. Then, the reusable capsule will be cleaned up and prepared for its next launch; already, this is the second time this particular capsule has flown to space and back again.
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Rahul Rao is a graduate of New York University's SHERP and a freelance science writer, regularly covering physics, space, and infrastructure. His work has appeared in Gizmodo, Popular Science, Inverse, IEEE Spectrum, and Continuum. He enjoys riding trains for fun, and he has seen every surviving episode of Doctor Who. He holds a masters degree in science writing from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) and earned a bachelors degree from Vanderbilt University, where he studied English and physics.