A reusable SpaceX booster has sent off a new docking port to the ISS and returned to Cape Canaveral. Both the rocket and the port are part of a new technology which will ultimately transport astronauts to orbit.
The Monday launch carried nearly 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms) of food and scientific equipment for the International Space Station (ISS), including a first ever DNA sequencer to be sent into space.
SpaceX, a private company owned by tech guru Elon Musk, operates the 15-story-tall Falcon 9 rocket. The California-based firm had also developed the Dragon cargo capsule which the rocket sent off to its two-day journey towards the ISS.
After separating from the cargo, Falcon 9 turned around and landed vertically only a few miles from its starting post at Cape Canaveral base.
"Good launch, good landing, Dragon is on its way," said NASA mission commentator George Diller.
Hitching a ride on Soyuz
The single most important element of the cargo is the Boeing-developed docking port which is set to be attached to the ISS. The 7.8-foot (2.4-meter) metal ring should allow the space station to link with commercial spaceships, which would also use SpaceX's reusable boosters to climb into orbit.
"It used to be, in the old days, you had to do it the hard way and dock manually," said NASA's Steve Payne.
"This has all the instrumentation that will allow spacecraft to come do it all automatically and it is a whole lot lighter workload on the crew."
Combined, these technologies aim to restore NASA's ability to send astronauts to space from American soil. With the old space shuttle program shelved five years ago, the US relies on Russian Soyuz capsules to transport passengers to and from the station. The ride costs the US over $70 million (63 million euros) per astronaut.
Rocket in 'excellent shape'
A SpaceX rocket carrying the original version of the Boeing docking ring exploded in June of last year, destroying $118 million worth of equipment shortly after take-off.
SpaceX hopes to drastically cut space exploration costs. In a conventional launch, primary boosters are discarded during flight. In December, however, Musk's company successfully tested its returning boosters for the first time. There have been five successful landings, with Monday's marking the second time for the returning boost to touch down on land.
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability for SpaceX, said the booster looked to be in "excellent shape and probably pretty soon ready to fly again."
The California-based company hopes to re-launch first refurbished booster in the fall. The first manned flights are expected next year.
dj/kms (AP, Reuters, AFP)