For those who spent the weekend tracking commentary on the sequester or, for that matter, the Snowquester, you may have missed the story of a huge 60-foot robot arm that grabbed a 1,200 pound suitcase flying by the International Space Station more or less 250 miles above Ukraine.
Video Credit: NASA
On Sunday morning at 5:31 am EST, the SpaceX Dragon capsule arrived at the International Space Station with its second delivery of scientific equipment. NASA's "flawless rendezvous" was the second resupply of the International Space Station by the commercial Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).
Within four hours of grabbing hold of the Dragon spacecraft with the robo-arm Canadarm2 and sealing the Dragon capsule to the ISS, members of the Expedition 34 crew were able to enter the Dragon and begin unloading the scientific cargo.
The Dragon spacecraft is a flying suitcase of pure scientific research gold. In this second resupply mission, the Dragon brought up an impressive list of cargo including computer hardware, a wet biology mini-lab, and of course: care packages for the crew. The cargo-craft is also carrying experiments designed by high school and college students and organized by the Student Spaceflights Experiments Program (SSEP) and the private company, Nanoracks.
Unlike other cargo resupply ships, SpaceX Dragon and the Russian Soyuz are the only cargo capsules that can both bring materials to the ISS and then again back home to Earth. When the Dragon returns to Earth on March 25, 2013, it will carry home more than 2,600 pounds of scientific samples and equipment. Researchers hope that studying the samples returning from the ISS will shed insight into how gravity (or lack of gravity) affects life itself.
For example, in the Plant Signaling and the Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC) investigations, scientists are studying how plant gene expressions change in microgravity and how seedlings respond to low oxygen levels.
Other studies making the return trip with the Dragon will help scientists understand how gravity affects material properties and structures at the smallest scales and how long-duration space flight might change human physiology like bone density, metabolism, and basic human chemistry, in preparation for long exploration missions to the Moon or to Mars.