Skip to main content

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has proved itself in space — now it has to get back to Earth in one piece

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has proved itself in space — now it has to get back to Earth in one piece

/

With its hatch closed, the capsule is ready to leave the space station

Share this story

The first ever test flight of SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon capsule will come to an end tomorrow, when the spacecraft detaches from the International Space Station and attempts to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean using a suite of parachutes. This is the last major milestone of the capsule’s mission — and perhaps the biggest challenge the Crew Dragon faces yet.

The vehicle needs to prove its novel shape and parachute system can survive the plunge through Earth’s atmosphere in one piece, while keeping its inner cargo safe. There won’t be any living passengers inside Crew Dragon when it makes its descent tomorrow. But as a vital part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX’s vehicle will be tasked with transporting NASA astronauts to the ISS in the years ahead. And it will of course have to bring them back to Earth safely afterward.

it’s been decades since people have returned from space this way

The Crew Dragon’s landing technique is similar to that of its predecessor, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule, which has been traveling to and from the ISS since 2012. After re-entering Earth’s atmosphere from space, the cargo capsule deploys parachutes in order to safely touch down in the Pacific Ocean. But it’s been decades since people have returned from space this way. NASA astronauts used to land in the ocean via parachutes during the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions of the 1960s and ‘70s. But once the Space Shuttle started flying in the 1980s, all astronauts have returned to solid ground when coming back from space.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, as it approached the space station on Sunday
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, as it approached the space station on Sunday
Image: NASA

For that reason, there will be a lot of scrutiny over this landing, especially when the capsule re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Crew Dragon may be similar to the cargo Dragon, but there are slight differences in the shapes of the vehicles that could cause a problem. The cargo Dragon has a smoother cone shape while the Crew Dragon is more asymmetrical. And that could cause some instability when the Crew Dragon streaks through the atmosphere.

“hypersonic re-entry is probably my biggest concern.”

The asymmetrical shape has to do with the fact that the Crew Dragon has an important feature the cargo version doesn’t have: an emergency abort system. Embedded in the outer walls of the Crew Dragon are eight thrusters called SuperDracos that are needed in case there’s a major catastrophe during a future flight. If for some reason a rocket carrying the Crew Dragon starts to deteriorate during launch, the SuperDracos will ignite and quickly propel the capsule away to safety.

This asymmetric shape may cause the Crew Dragon to roll during hypersonic re-entry — when the vehicle is going faster than the speed of sound through Earth’s atmosphere. It’s something that’s worrying SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. “I say hypersonic re-entry is probably my biggest concern,” he said during a press conference after the capsule launched on Saturday. However he noted that he thinks this rolling is unlikely, based on simulations the company has run 1,000 times.

Additionally, both NASA and SpaceX will be closely watching the performance of the Crew Dragon’s parachutes during tomorrow’s landing. Four main parachutes should deploy in order to slow the vehicle’s descent into the water. The company has done 17 parachute drop tests so far, according to SpaceX’s vice president Hans Koenigsmann, but NASA is still in the middle of qualifying this system for human spaceflight. “We’re looking at the physical parameters of how the chutes operate and if we covered all the corners of the envelope and testing,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration, said during a press conference a week before the launch.

In fact, NASA specifically picked the launch dates it did for this mission so that the Crew Dragon would return when the Sun is out. That way the agency can fully see how the parachutes look when they deploy and what the splashdown will look like. Once the vehicle has made it to the ocean, a SpaceX recovery ship will meet up with the spacecraft, lift it out of the water, and transport it back to land.

The hatch on the Crew Dragon closing before its departure
The hatch on the Crew Dragon closing before its departure
Image: NASA/SpaceX

While no people will be on board for this landing, SpaceX’s “smart” dummy named Ripley will be riding inside, wearing one of the company’s custom flight suits. Equipped with multiple sensors for gathering data, Ripley rode to space in the vehicle on Saturday and has remained at the ISS since the Crew Dragon docked on Sunday. Soon the mannequin will be getting a feel for what the descent to Earth is like, which will help NASA know how many extra Gs future astronauts will feel. Ripley will also be riding with more than 300 pounds of return cargo that has been packed inside the capsule.

Today at 12:39PM ET, the crew on board the ISS closed the hatch on the Crew Dragon in preparation for tomorrow’s departure. The capsule’s exit begins super early on Friday, with undocking scheduled to take place at 2:31AM ET. It will slowly creep away from the ISS and about five hours later, the Crew Dragon will ignite is thrusters to take itself out of orbit. That’s when the harrowing plunge will begin, with Crew Dragon slated for splashdown at around 8:45AM ET.

For those waking up early on Friday, you can catch NASA and SpaceX’s live coverage of undocking starting at 2AM ET and then coverage of the landing starting at 7:30AM ET.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 21 minutes ago Not just you

E
Twitter
Emma Roth21 minutes ago
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.


E
Twitter
Emma Roth55 minutes ago
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.


E
External Link
Emma Roth5:52 PM UTC
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.


Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
A
Youtube
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.


A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.


A
External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.