SpaceX Dragon capsule approaches ISS for docking

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Crew Dragon capsule in a test that will pave the way for the first manned US space mission in almost a decade. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule – launched on a test mission for NASA – was on Sunday approaching the International Space Station, where it was set to dock for the first time.

Dragon was gradually climbing in altitude toward the ISS, which is orbiting the Earth at around 400km altitude and at a speed of 28,000-kilometres-per-hour – orbiting the Earth in 90 minutes.

The capsule has made two orbits since its launch on Saturday from the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

On board the ISS, the crew – American Anne McClain, Russian Oleg Kononenko, and Canadian David Saint-Jacques – were scheduled to carry out a welcoming ceremony.

This time around, the only occupant on board the Dragon capsule was a dummy named Ripley – but NASA plans to put two astronauts aboard in July, although that date could be delayed.

Dragon first stabilised 7km behind the ISS and 2.5km below it. Then, the NASA Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, gave the green light for the first phase of the approach which ends 400 meters from the ISS. Around 0900 GMT, Dragon was 3,000 meters away, NASA said.

Ships bound for the ISS approach via several “waypoints,” imaginary gates of sorts. After reaching the 400-meter point, Dragon was set to move in front of the station, 150 meters away – before automatically docking at 1100 GMT.

The launch is a key step towards resuming manned space flights from US soil after an eight-year break.

After the shuttle program was shut down in July 2011 following a 30-year run, NASA began outsourcing the logistics of its space missions.

It pays Russia to get its people up to the ISS orbiting research facility at a cost of US$82 million per head for a round trip.

In 2014, the US space agency awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing for them to take over this task.