SpaceX Dragon cargo craft heads to space station

Spacecraft carries a 3D printer, weather monitoring device

spacex liftoff

Days after receiving a contract to build spacecraft that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, SpaceX launched its Dragon spacecraft, loaded with supplies and scientific experiments to the orbiting station.

This marks the fourth mission that SpaceX, a company that says it one day wants to build cities on Mars , has flown to the space station. Its first test flight launched in May 2012.

"There's nothing like a good launch. It's just fantastic," said Hans Koenigsman, vice president of Mission Assurance for SpaceX, in a statement. "From what I can tell, everything went perfectly."

The rocket lifted off at 1:52 a.m. ET on Sunday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket flew on a path roughly paralleling the East Coast of the U.S., according to NASA.

Once the first and then the second-stage engines fell away from the spacecraft, the Dragon’s pair of solar-array wings unfurled, recharging the spacecraft’s batteries.

Dragon is now in the midst of a two-day trip to the space station. It is expected to rendezvous with the orbiter Tuesday morning.

European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst and NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman are expected to use one of the space station’s robotic arms to grab onto Dragon and maneuver it to latch onto one of the station’s ports.

The cargo craft is carrying supplies for the station, as well as the elements needed for about 255 scientific experiments.

Dragon is also carrying the first 3D printer taken into space. NASA scientists want to test whether astronauts traveling in deep space would be able to produce spare parts, tools and possibly even food on the fly. On the space station, the 3D printer could produce needed parts for the station, instead of waiting for them to be shipped into orbit on a cargo craft.

The Dragon is also carrying the ISS-RapidScat, a tool that would improve weather forecasting and hurricane monitoring. The device will be connected to the outside of the station.

The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to stay attached to the space station until mid-October when it is expected to return to Earth, landing with the use of parachutes, in the Pacific Ocean.

Last week, NASA awarded highly sought after commercial crew transportation contracts to SpaceX and Boeing Co.. The contracts are to build spacecraft that will ferry astronauts from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station and back.

NASA has a deadline of launching astronauts from U.S. soil by 2017, giving the two companies only a few years to finish their designs, build, test and certify their spacecraft.

Since the U.S. retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, NASA has depended on Russia to ferry its astronauts to the space station, paying the Russian space agency about $70 million per astronaut.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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