Jason DavisMar 08, 2019

Crew Dragon Returns to Earth

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft has successfully completed a 6-day mission to the International Space Station and back. The spacecraft undocked from the ISS today at 02:32 EST (07:32 UTC) and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean almost 6 hours later at 08:45 EST. 

News Brief

Crew Dragon's return to Earth began yesterday, after astronauts finished packing it with about 150 kilograms of return cargo; some of that includes some cold storage samples, NASA said prior to launch. The hatch was officially closed on 7 March at 12:39 EST. 

The undocking process itself started 8 March just before 02:30 EST, when the umbilicals and hooks connecting Dragon to the station retracted. With a tiny thruster burn at 02:32 EST, Dragon physically backed away from the station's forward docking port, as the station passed over Sudan.

Once again, cameras aboard the International Space Station showed stunning views of Crew Dragon in space.

Crew Dragon departs ISS
Crew Dragon departs ISS Crew Dragon backs away from the International Space Station during its Demo-1 mission, following undocking on 8 March at 02:32 EST.Image: NASA TV

Crew Dragon's departure burns quickly moved it outside the station's imaginary 200-meter-wide Keep Out Sphere, and in roughly 20 minutes, it was outside the 4-by-2 kilometer approach ellipsoid. Counterintuitively, Dragon actually moved away and up from the station instead of down; I asked Twitter for an explanation, and aerospace engineer Max Fagin helpfully explained:

Five hours later, Dragon had moved into an orbit lower than the ISS. It jettisoned its unpressurized trunk and began a 15-minute de-orbit burn using its Draco thrusters. Thanks to a camera under Crew Dragon's open nosecone, thruster pulses were visible in the darkness—a rare sight to see for a spacecraft returning to Earth.

NASA and SpaceX reported the deorbit burn was nominal, and Dragon closed its nosecone to prepare for reentry. As the spacecraft touched the upper fringes of Earth's atmosphere, live views from a NASA WB-57 chase plane captured its plasma trail: 

The live view then switched to color cameras on SpaceX's recovery ship, the Go Searcher, which saw the drogue and main parachutes deploy successfully.

Crew Dragon Demo-1 under main parachutes
Crew Dragon Demo-1 under main parachutes SpaceX's Crew Dragon completes its Demo-1 mission with splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean on 8 March 2019 at 08:45 EST (13:45 UTC).Image: NASA TV

Dragon splashed into the Atlantic Ocean exactly on time, at 08:45 EST (13:45 UTC). 

About an hour later, Dragon was safely aboard the Go Searcher, for the 30-hour trip back to Florida.

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