Space Exploration Technologies’ Dragon capsule aced its orbital driving test Thursday, positioning the company a step closer to becoming the first private firm to reach the International Space Station.
Starting at a point 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) below and behind the outpost, Dragon used GPS satellite navigation data and data from the space station itself to precisely navigate to a point 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometers) away.
Besides testing its space legs, Dragon checked communications links with ground control teams and with the space station. Astronauts aboard the station used a special control box to turn on Dragon’s strobe light, a demonstration of the crew’s ability to control the capsule.
The tests cleared SpaceX to proceed with a second flyby and approach to the station on Friday. If all goes well, the Dragon will maneuver to within 30 feet of the station and shut down its thrusters so it can be captured by the station’s robotic crane.
Station flight engineer Don Pettit, who will be operating the 58-foot long arm, is expected to pluck Dragon from orbit around 11:30 a.m.
Dragon is carrying about 1,200 pounds of food, clothing, supplies and other gear for the station crew. It is expected to remain at the station until May 31.
Before departing for the return trip to Earth, astronauts will load Dragon with equipment and science experiments needing a ride back. With the shuttle program’s end last year, NASA and its space station partners have had only a tiny bit of room to return items from the station aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that fly crew to and from the outpost.
If Dragon continues to perform as planned, SpaceX will be cleared to begin working off its 12-flight, $1.6-billion NASA contract to fly cargo to and from the station. A second privately owned U.S. freighter built by Orbital Sciences Corp is scheduled to debut later this year.
NASA is pursing similar partnerships with companies to fly its astronauts as well.
Image: The Dragon capsule is photographed 2.5 miles below the International Space Station. Credit: NASA