Space Station Astronauts Capture SpaceX Dragon Resupply Capsule

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A SpaceX Dragon commercial resupply capsule carried out an early rendezvous with the International Space Station Monday, delivering just over 5,100 pounds of crew supplies and scientific research equipment to the orbiting science laboratory's six astronauts.

ISS commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore, positioned at the controls of the station's 57 foot-long Canadian robot arm in the U. S. segment Cupola observation deck, reached out to grapple the space freighter at  5:54 a.m., EST,  about 18 minutes ahead of schedule.

“We are pretty thrilled up here,”  said Wilmore, who was assisted in the grapple of the 14 foot-long gleaming white capsule by European Space Station Samantha Cristoforetti. “We are excited to have it on board. We will be digging in soon.”

“Good luck, Butch,” NASA’s Mission Control told Wilmore as ground controllers determined the capsule was steady and correctly positioned within 35 feet  of the ISS. “We are counting on you.”

The delivery marked the fifth for Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX under a $1.6 billion, 12-flight Commercial Resupply Services agreement with NASA. The unpiloted Dragon was launched early Saturday atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Fla., and carried out a series of automated rendezvous maneuvers without difficulty.

The mission marks the first cargo delivery by a U.S. commercial launch services provider since the Oct. 28 loss of Orbital Sciences third Cygnus re-supply craft loaded with 4,800 pounds of food, research equipment and other hardware. The Cygnus launch vehicle was lost in a first stage explosion moments after lifting off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, VA.

After the successful grapple of Dragon by Wilmore and Cristoferretti, operations of the robot arm were turned over to NASA's Mission Control. Ground controllers were to command the robot arm to latch Dragon to the station's Harmony module shortly after 8 a.m., EST.

Hatches to the spacecraft were to be opened early Tuesday, though Wilmore, Cristoforetti and NASA astronaut Terry Virts could access the capsule later Tuesday.

The deliveries include NASA's Cloud Aerosol Transport System, a lidar sensor developed to study clouds and aerosols, including pollutants in the Earth's atmosphere, from the station's 260 mile-high vantage point. The CATS observatory is slated for extraction from Dragon's unpressurized trunk early Friday, using a combination of the station's Canadian and Japanese robot arms. CATS is to be installed outside the station's Japanese Kibo research module using the robotic limbs.

The fifth Dragon is scheduled to remain berthed to the station until Feb. 10, when it will undock with a 2,900 pound return cargo, comprised primarily of research experiments and no longer needed equipment. SpaceX is tasked with recovering the capsule and its science bounty after a splashdown under parachute in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Santa Barbara, Calif.

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