SpaceX’s Dragon capsule returns to Earth with a squad of mouse astronauts

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has successfully returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean with more than 1,700kg of cargo after being jettisoned from the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule returns to Earth with a squad of mouse astronauts

Among the cargo is a sample of lung tissue, grown in space, and a habitat for a squad of mice that has been living in the ISS since Dragon was used to ship supplies and experimentation material little over a month ago.

The mice are a key part of the Rodent Research-9 study, aimed at investigating the effects of extended weightlessness on cartilage loss in knee and hip joints, as well as on blood vessels in the eye and brain. The NASA experiment is being used to gauge the impact of long-term space exploration on humans – including future missions to Mars.

The rodent astronauts departed the ISS after the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm was used to detach Dragon from the Harmony module. After it separated, Dragon fired its thrusters and headed for Earth. Around 5.5 hours later, it splashed down off the coast of California, where SpaceX personnel retrieved it with a recovery ship.

When it was sent up to the ISS on 16 August, Dragon also carried a number of protein crystals – for experimenting with treatments for Parkinson’s disease – a prototype HPE supercomputer, cosmic ray sensors, lung cells and ice cream for the astronauts. The supercomputer is staying on the ISS, and the ice cream has presumably been eaten, but the protein crystals and space-grown lung tissue have joined the mice on their return to earth. It’s now up to Earth-bound scientists to continue the research.

“NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the non-profit organisation that manages research aboard the US national laboratory portion of the space station, will receive time-sensitive samples and begin working with researchers to process and distribute them within 48 hours of splashdown,” a NASA statement said.

Dragon’s journey marks the 12th successful ISS resupply mission for SpaceX. While previous missions have generally seen the private space company use new Dragon capsules for each foray, it has said it intends to reuse cargo vessels for a quicker, and eventually cheaper, turnaround. It looks to be a strategy very much in line with SpaceX’s advancements at re-launching recovered Falcon 9 rockets.  

Terrible photoshop: Thomas McMullan

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