SpaceX Dragon 2 DM-2 Vehicle Clears Return Review – Company Reveals Key Renovation Details

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Following the launch of astronautic launch services provider and equipment manufacturer Space Exploration Technologies Corp.'s (SpaceX) Dragon 2 spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) DM-2 mission in May this year, both entities are now preparing to safely return astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley back to Earth. The DM-2 mission intends to evaluate the Dragon 2 for commercially launching astronauts to the ISS, and the vehicle's return to Earth will mark the final stages of this evaluation.

To that end, NASA officials and a SpaceX representative conducted a Return Flight Readiness Review briefing earlier today to provide details of the two astronauts' return. The agency currently hopes that the pair will depart from the ISS on 07:34 ET August 1 and land on Earth on 14:42 ET the next day, after roughly nineteen hours of travel.

SpaceX DM-2 Dragon 2 Spacecraft Will Fly Crew-2 Mission In Spring 2021 Following Solar Panel & Other Component Replacements

Providing details about the DM-2 Dragon 2's undocking, manager of the agency's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) Mr. Steve Stich highlighted the agency's plans to ensure that the spacecraft returns safely to the Earth's surface. According to the official, the hatch closing for the vehicle will take place on 16:40 CT on Saturday and provided that weather conditions are favorable, the Dragon 2 will undock from the ISS two hours later on 19:30 CT. Throughout this process, the space agency will have several decision points to confirm that the spacecraft can splashdown safely. Six hours prior to the undocking, cargo will be brought on board the vehicle, with the moment also marking the Key Decision Point 2 for the vehicle's undocking.

NASA currently has seven landing sites for the Dragon 2 splashdown. These are located in Pensacola, Panama City, Tallahassee, Tampa, Jacksonville, Tampa and Cape Canaveral off of the Florida coast. Of these, Panama City, Tallahassee and Tampa were added after the initial flight readiness review revealed Mr. Stich during the briefing. NASA has also tested the vehicle for being able to sustain a crew of four, with the tests covering meal preparation, hygiene capabilities and the ability for the crew members to sleep in its seats.

The SpaceX Dragon 2 Vehicle for the Crew-1 mission in the company's facilities in Hawthorne, California. The vehicle will ship out of Hawthorne in the first half of August revealed SpaceX today. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

To successfully land and remain undamaged in the entire process, the Dragon 2 must not encounter wind speeds higher than 15 feet-per-second (10 miles-per-hour). This is due to the fact that any higher wind speed will risk the vehicle's structural integrity via water damage. Wave characteristics including heigh and period will also be monitored to ensure that the heat shield avoids structural damage and that the helicopter that will carry Behnken and Hurley away from the vehicle is able to safely land on the recovery vessel. Additionally, SpaceX also has the option to return the pair to land via ship, with the final decision depending on the landing site choice.

Confirming the company's undocking, de-orbiting and landing procedure, SpaceX's Director for Crew Mission Management Mr. Benjamin Reed highlighted the steps that the vehicle will take following hatch closure. The first step will be the Dragon 2's automated undock from the space station, which will be followed by a departure burn, following which the vehicle's SuperDraco thrusters will commence the phasing burns. The phasing burns will precede the vehicle's trunk jettison following which the longest burns of the mission prior to its re-entry. These are the vehicle's de-orbit burns to orient it with the landing sites on Earth.

SpaceX has also confirmed that it will be able to start the Dragon 2's refurbishment process onboard the recovery vessel, similar to its procedures for the Falcon 9 launch vehicles. Mr. Reed also revealed that the company is targeting the Easter Coast landing sites for the Dragon 2's re-entry owing to a Dragon facility nearby for the vehicle's pre-launch preparations and post-re-entry refurbishment. The refurbishment will cover panel removal for analysis, component replacements and component upgrades following flight experience.

Additionally, the Dragon 2 DM-2 vehicle will also use a new trunk once it takes to the skies in Spring 2021. The timeline was confirmed at today's briefing and Mr. Reed also confirmed that the refurbishment process for the vehicle will feature upgraded solar panels. The vehicle's current solar panels generating power while it's docked with the ISS met all NASA expectations and were the biggest limiting factor for the DM-2 mission's time duration due to degradation in the harsh space environment. SpaceX has also designed the Dragon 2 for at least five reuses confirmed the company today, with the spacecraft also having a shorter refurbishment time than its predecessor, the Dragon 1.