SpaceX launched its 26th space station resupply mission on Saturday, sending 7,700 pounds of equipment and supplies aboard a Dragon freighter, including belated Thanksgiving Day treats for the lab crew, research equipment and two new roll-out solar panels to harness the power of increase the station.
Running late due to stormy weather earlier this week, the engines of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage came roaring to life at 2:20 p.m. EST and the slender rocket rocketed off pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. About 12 minutes later, the Cargo Dragon was released to fly independently.
If all goes well, the spacecraft will chase the station early Sunday morning, approaching from behind and below. After looping in front of the lab and then above it, the capsule will move in for an autonomous docking at the forward Harmony module’s space-facing port.
“Critically important to us (are) the two new solar arrays that we will spacewalk … to install and deploy aboard the International Space Station,” said Joel Montalbano, space station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“And in addition to the two solar panels, some life support equipment is being delivered, some GPS hardware, some exercise hardware, and some medical equipment… All in all, we’re looking forward to an exciting mission.”
Also on board: Belated Thanksgiving treats for the station’s seven-member crew, including spicy green beans, cranapple desserts, and pumpkin pie.
“Plus, our standard food menu allows them to have everything we would have on Thanksgiving, you know, mashed potatoes, candied yams, mac and cheese for those who want mac and cheese. So we’re going to get those guys fed really well.”
The Cargo Dragon is also packed with research equipment, including an experiment to grow dwarf tomatoes in space, an experimental in-flight medical diagnosis kit, an experiment to test new techniques for building large structures in microgravity, and another experiment exploring new ways will test to produce key nutrients in space.
The ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays, or IROSAs, are the third and fourth of six to be installed on the space station in a $103 million upgrade to boost the power of the lab’s eight older original-equipment blankets.
The space station is built with four huge rotating solar wings, two on the right side of the lab and two on the left. Each of those four wings consists of two sundecks extending from opposite sides of a central hub.
The first pair of original blankets have been in use for over 20 years. Subsequent wings were added in 2006, 2007, and 2009. All have suffered from years of space environment degradation, and they don’t generate as much power as they did when they were new.
The IROSA blankets, about half the size of the original arrays, are more efficient and will eventually generate an additional 120 kilowatts of power. They are designed to be mounted on brackets at the base of an existing wing, extending outwards at a 10 degree angle to minimize the shadow they cast on the array below.
The first two IROSA blankets were installed on the left side of the outboard arrays during spacewalks in 2021 – the oldest set on the station. wings during spacewalks in December.
“The first two arrays have performed extremely well,” said Matt Mickle, senior manager of development projects at Boeing, in a NASA release. “The solar cells are enormously more powerful than previous generations.”
Once all six rollout arrays are installed, total power generation will be increased by 20 to 30 percent, roughly equivalent to the output of the original arrays when they were new.
The last two of the six IROSAs currently under contract will be launched next year. It is not yet known if NASA will buy the last two IROSAs to augment all eight of the station’s original blankets.