SpaceX Launches Falcon 9 Rocket Carrying Critical Space Station Docking Port for NASA

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and streaked into space early Monday, boosting a Dragon cargo ship into orbit loaded with nearly 5,000 pounds of equipment and supplies bound for the International Space Station, including a critical docking mechanism needed by U.S. crew capsules now under construction.

SpaceX also pulled off its fifth first-stage landing and its second touchdown at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Recovering, refurbishing and eventually re-launching Falcon 9 stages is a key element in company founder Elon Musk’s ongoing attempt to dramatically lower the cost of spaceflight.

Musk tweeted about it:

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But the first-stage recovery Monday was a purely secondary objective.

The mission’s primary goal was to boost the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship into orbit and along with it, the long-awaited International Docking Adapter, or IDA.

The half-ton Boeing-built component will replace one that was destroyed in a June 2015 Falcon 9 launch failure and keep NASA on track for initial test flights of the new crew ferry ships in 2017 or 2018.

Also on board the Dragon: 815 pounds of food, clothing and other crew supplies, 280 pounds of spacewalk equipment, 119 pounds of Russian hardware, 617 pounds of U.S. station equipment and spare parts and a full ton of research samples and equipment, including an innovative device the size of a small candy bar to carry out the first gene sequencing in space.

“We’re really interested in how this works in microgravity; it’s never been done before,” said astronaut Kate Rubins, a molecular biologist launched to the space station July 6. “We’re going to be trying to do the first DNA sequencing in space, and it’ll be a combination of a bacteria, a virus and a mouse genome that we’ll be sequencing.”

The MinION gene sequencer works by measuring very slight changes in electrical conductivity as DNA components pass through a biological pore. Rubins said the research she hopes to carry out will help scientists better understand the mechanisms behind bone loss, muscle atrophy and other negative aspects of living in microgravity.

“It also has a benefit for Earth-based research as well,” she said. “When we do things in a remote environment up here, we can understand how these technologies might work in remote places on Earth that don’t have access to good medical care,” Rubins said.

Other experiments of interest aboard the Dragon include a study to determine the effects of weightlessness on microorganisms that originated in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; a study to learn how beating heart cells are affected by weightlessness; tests of an experimental ship tracking system; and another to evaluate a new type of heat exchanger to control spacecraft temperatures.

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SOURCE: CBS News, William Harwood