SpaceX Dragon cargo ship heads for Earth packed with gravity-sensitive experiments

SpaceX's Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft undocked from the International Space Station packed full of science experiments after one month at the orbiting laboratory.

The capsule, carrying 4,600 lbs. (2,900 kilograms) of material to return to Earth, undocked at 9:12 a.m. EDT (1312 GMT) on Thursday (Sept. 30) while the station was travelling over the Pacific Ocean. NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough monitored from inside the International Space Station's cupola as the capsule, commanded by ground controllers at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, detached from the station's Harmony module and fired its thrusters. 

"I want to give a huge thank you to the SpaceX and the NASA teams for getting this vehicle up to us in great shape, with a lot of science and surprise for the ISS," Kimbrough said during a NASA livestream. "The activities associated with SpaceX 23 kept our crew busy over the past month. We look forward to hearing about the results of the payloads we interacted with. Have a safe journey back to Earth."

The capsule then moved to a safe distance from the station and performed a series of burns, which sent it toward Earth.

The spacecraft will splash down off the coast of Florida at around 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT on Oct. 1). The capsule will then be transported to NASA's Space Station Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, which is located a short distance from the splashdown site. 

This short distance is especially important for this shipment, since the capsule carries microgravity experiments that could be affected if exposed to the planet's gravity in an unprotected environment for a longer period of time, NASA officials wrote in a statement.

Many of the experiments are biomedical, including some focused on the evolution of degenerative diseases such as Azheimer's, Parkinson's and Type 2 diabetes, as well as others examining muscle atrophy and gene expression in space.

Investigators will make a first quick assessment of the biological samples upon arrival at the processing facility before exposure to gravity alters the results. Then, the researchers will perform more in-depth analyses at their home laboratories.

The departing Dragon spacecraft had been docked at the space station since Aug. 30. The capsule, launched on Aug. 29 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, was SpaceX's 23rd Commercial Resupply Services mission.

The next cargo Dragon bound for the space station is currently targeting a launch in early December. The docking port on the Harmony module that the CRS-23 capsule occupied will next be visited by the upcoming Crew Dragon 3 mission this fall.

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