High above northwestern Australia, a robotic arm on the International Space Station grabbed onto a cargo capsule floating 10 meters away.
With that penultimate act, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation of Hawthorne, Calif., or SpaceX, made history as the first private company to send a craft, the Dragon, to the station.
The grab — which NASA refers to as a grapple — occurred at 9:56 a.m. Eastern time on Friday.
“It looks like we’ve got us a Dragon by the tail,” said Donald R. Pettit, the NASA astronaut on the station who was operating the robotic arm.
Andre Kuipers, an European Space Agency astronaut, then took over the robotic arm to pull the Dragon to a docking port on the station, locking it there just after noon. After the hatches are opened on Saturday, the astronauts aboard the station will spend six days unloading the cargo brought up by the Dragon and replacing it with items to take back to Earth. The Dragon is to undock on Thursday and parachute into the Pacific Ocean off California.
SpaceX launched the Dragon capsule on top of its Falcon 9 rocket on Tuesday. The company and NASA spent several days conducting tests to check the Dragon’s operations. On Thursday, it flew 1.5 miles beneath the station to test its communication and navigation systems.
It passed those tests, then looped around the space station to begin its final approach. By design, the approach was slow, with built-in pauses. As part of the testing process, the crew sent commands to the capsule to stop or temporarily move away, ensuring that Dragon could be safely sent off if something went badly awry.
SpaceX did run into some difficulties with Dragon’s navigation sensors, one that took thermal images and one that bounced laser pulses, and that delayed the capture by a couple of hours.
“This is, I think, going to be recognized as a significantly historical step forward in space travel,” SpaceX’s chief executive, Elon Musk, said during a news conference. “Hopefully the first of many to come.” (cont … New York Times)