SpaceX hit another milestone overnight with the return of the upgraded cargo Dragon capsule from the International Space Station (ISS), which splashed down off the Florida coast.
The successful mission marked the first time since the Space Shuttle era that science payloads have been returned through NASA's Kennedy Space Center in this manner.
Delayed by poor weather, the Dragon spacecraft undocked from the International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the station's space-facing port of the Harmony module, loitering until a deorbit burn was performed on Wednesday evening. The departure was notable in that it did not require the ISS's robotic arm to detach and release the freighter (unlike the previous version).
Splashdown occurred at 01:26 UTC on 14 Jan.
The cargo version of the Crew Dragon capsule also features twice the powered locker capacity of the previous spacecraft, allowing for a considerable increase in the science that can be returned. A landing off the coast of Florida also means some science can be delivered "back into the hands of the researchers as soon as four to nine hours after splashdown" reducing the effects of losing microgravity.
Previous Dragon freighters splashed down in the Pacific, and quick-return science had to wait for processing at SpaceX's Texas facility, according to NASA.
As well as an array of experiments, the capsule also returned 320 snippets of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines and 12 bottles of red wine. The latter had been sent to the ISS in 2019 in a Cygnus freighter while the former followed in 2020. Both are part of the Mission WISE programme, aimed at tackling future agriculture challenges.
SpaceX's achievement was a little overshadowed by the static firing of the latest in its line of Starship prototypes. Three firings were successfully conducted, laying the groundwork for a future flight of the silver vehicle.
All three static fires completed & no RUDs!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 13, 2021
The Crew Dragon spacecraft that expanded the ISS crew from three to seven members remains docked to the orbiting laboratory. ®