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Anatomy of a Dragon's Descent

Hawthorne: the Dragon has landed.

Tasked with resupplying the International Space Station and carrying other materials back to Earth, SpaceX's Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS days ago. And earlier this morning SpaceX employees celebrated in Hawthorne, California after Dragon's successful return to Earth.

For those who missed the coverage this morning, join us for a visual journey through the spacecraft's 370 kilometer plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

Image Credit: SpaceX

Dragon Demating

  • Time: 4:07 - 5:39 AM Eastern Time
  • Altitude: Approximately 370 km (230 miles)
  • Reminiscent of the movie...: 2001: A Space Odyssey

At approximately 4:00 AM Eastern Time today, Dragon left the International Space Station and began its journey back to Earth. The ISS's robotic arm nudged the spacecraft away before letting it loose, as you can see in the NASA video below.
After a series of maneuvers lasting four hours, Dragon started its final 30 minute descent through the atmosphere.

Burning the Trunk

  • Time: 11:15 AM Eastern Time
  • Altitude: Approximately 370 km (230 miles) down to 13.7 km (40,000 feet)
  • Reminiscent of the movie...: How to Train Your Dragon
    (Dragon lives up to its flame-breathing moniker with a heat shield that can withstand 3,450 degree Fahrenheit temperatures.)

To re-enter the atmosphere, the spacecraft sent off a final engine burn that decreased its velocity by 100 meters per second. At this point, Dragon's trunk equipped with solar arrays detached and later burned up in the atmosphere, as planned. You can learn more about the Dragon's heat shield in the video below.

Deploy the Chutes

  • Time: 11:35 AM Eastern Time
  • Altitude: 13.7 km down to 3.7 km (40,000 to 10,000 feet)
  • Reminiscent of the movie...: Moonraker (OK, maybe that's a stretch)

At 40,000 feet, Dragon started releasing its drogue chutes. These specially designed parachutes are smaller than traditional parachutes; consequently, they slow down the spacecraft without ripping apart. Minutes later, when Dragon slowed down sufficiently, the main parachutes were deployed.

During this part of the descent, a NASA plane was circling the target landing zone and took infrared images of the capsule as it fell toward the ocean.

Left: Dragon's three 116 feet wide parachutes as seen from a NASA plane's infrared camera. Right: An artist's impression of what Dragon would look like descending over land. In the future, SpaceX hopes to land on solid ground instead of splashing down in the ocean. Left image courtesy NASA TV. Right image courtesy SpaceX.


  • Time: 11:42 AM Eastern Time
  • Altitude: Sea Level
  • Reminiscent of the movie...: Apollo 13 

At a relatively gentle 16 to 18 miles per hour, Dragon was doused with Pacific waters at 11:42 AM Eastern Time. Right on target, Dragon landed about 536 miles West of Mexico's Baja peninsula. This afternoon, SpaceX was going through the process of recovering the spacecraft with boats deployed to the area.

Left: An image released today of Dragon floating on the ocean's surface. Right: The location of splashdown, just off the coast of Mexico. Both images courtesy NASA TV.

So there you have it: the first commercial mission to the ISS in the books.

For more information about the SpaceX Dragon's mission, see this media kit (PDF) released by SpaceX.


If you want to keep up with Hyperspace, AKA Brian, you can follow him on Twitter.


  1. Brian, how does the channel built into the side of the capsule that guides the parachute cables after being deployed work? Is it covered in a material that just tears away as the cables are tightened by the release of the parachutes?

  2. Why isn't there a "Pods" storage locker in space to put stuff that "burns up in the atmosphere"? Why couldn't those solar panels have been left in in space?

    It always amazed me when the space shuttles external tank was left to burn up in the atmosphere.


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