Last time we checked in with Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk he was readying his electric vehicle company for the launch of its newest car, the Model S sedan. So what’s he up to lately? Not much really, unless you consider launching a manned, reusable space craft to rendezvous with NASA International Space Station a big deal.
Musk’s company, SpaceX was selected by NASA to resupply the International Space Station after the agency ended its Space Shuttle program last year. SpaceX received an initial $1.6 billion contract for a minimum of 12 flights, with an option to order additional missions. However, in order to begin the actual missions, SpaceX first has to meet the stringent performance standards set by NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). SpaceX has already passed the first COTS test and NASA recently announced that SpaceX will be allowed to complete the objectives of COTS 2 and COTS 3 in a single mission, lifting off February 7.
This means that after separating from the Falcon 9 two-stage, liquid-oxygen and rocket-grade-kerosene (RP-1) powered launch vehicle, SpaceX’s manned Dragon craft will perform all of the COTS 2 mission objectives, which include numerous operations in the vicinity of the ISS, and will then perform the COTS 3 objectives. These include approach, berthing with the ISS, astronauts opening Dragon and unloading cargo, and finally astronauts closing the spacecraft and sending it back to Earth for recovery from the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. If the Dragon is able to complete these tasks successfully, NASA plans to begin regular SpaceX flights to the Space Station later this year. NASA hopes for two flights in 2013 and three flights in 2014.
The Dragon is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft made up of a pressurized capsule and unpressurized trunk used for Earth to low-Earth-orbit transport of pressurized cargo, unpressurized cargo and/or crew members. The Dragon spacecraft comprises three main elements: the nose cone, which protects the vessel and the docking adaptor during ascent; the spacecraft, which houses the crew and/or pressurized cargo as well as the service section containing avionics, parachutes, and other support infrastructure; and the trunk, which provides for the stowage of unpressurized cargo.
This being an Elon Musk company, there must be some some element of cutting edge renewable technology. And for this mission it’s the Dragon spacecraft’s use of deployable solar arrays stored in its trunk area as its primary power source for running sensors, driving heating and cooling systems, and communicating with SpaceX’s Mission Control Center and the Space Station. Dragon’s solar arrays generate up to 5,000 watts of power — enough to power over 80 standard light bulbs.