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After problems forced a delay from a scheduled launch this weekend, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to take off later this month carrying nearly 5,000 pounds of precious cargo headed to the International Space Station, including the equipment for more than 150 experiments. Here’s a look at five of the more interesting projects that will be on board.
The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science will use a laser to communicate with a NASA station on Earth. Laser beams can send data at a much higher rate than traditional radio frequency transmissions. Sending more data at faster rates will be essential as our exploration of the universe moves farther and farther away from Earth.
NASA’s main challenge will be accurately positioning the laser to point at its target. The agency will test OPALS by sending high definition video between Earth and the ISS. It expects that it will be able to send 10 to 100 times more data than is currently possible.
Vegetable Production System
Growing up, we learned that space food comes in tubes and vacuum-sealed packages. The future looks a lot more palatable, as NASA is trying hard to develop better options for astronauts that promote health and stave off depression.
The Vegetable Production System is both a science experiment and a nutrition experiment. After observing how salad-friendly varieties of lettuce — the largest plants ever grown on the space station — respond to life in microgravity, the ISS crew will eat them. The plants will also remove carbon dioxide from the air and, potentially, provide insight into how NASA can help people journey farther than ever before from Earth.
Shoebox-size CubeSat satellites have totally changed the types of people and companies who can afford to send a satellite into space. While an aerospace graduate student at Cornell University, Zac Manchester launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 to drop that price even further.
His KickSat CubeSat will finally launch this week aboard the Falcon 9. Once it is released from the ISS, it will release 250 palm-sized satellites known as Sprites. Kickstarter backers who pledged at least $300 will have their own personal Sprite that they control.
Robonaut 2’s legs
Robonaut 2 is a humanoid robot built to perform simple, repetitive and dangerous tasks aboard the ISS. But right now, it’s just a head and torso. Falcon 9 will finally deliver its legs and their operating system, finally bringing R2 to its full capabilities.
OK, so the Falcon 9 rocket not going all the way to the ISS. But the rocket that will carry all these projects on the first leg of their journey is itself an experiment. SpaceX has been working on developing rockets that can land on solid ground after take off. This would create huge cost-savings for the industry by extending how many times a rocket can be used.
Right now, SpaceX’s rockets return to Earth by crashing into the ocean, which damages the rocket and makes recovery more expensive than gently setting down at their original take-off location. Traditionally, rockets have just been discarded after one use.
The Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to blast off Sunday will be the first to test a set of landing legs developed at SpaceX. While it will still land in the ocean, it will use the legs to soften its impact with the water. Eventually, SpaceX rockets will transition to landing on solid ground.