Following a flawless Saturday launch, a SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station on Sunday morning, delivering several tons of supplies and a second set of upgraded solar arrays to the orbital outpost.
In what has become a rare event for the company, an all-new Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft were assigned to the mission – SpaceX’s latest launch under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. Carrying Dragon C211 (the 11th Dragon 2 capsule) and a new single-use Falcon upper stage, Falcon 9 booster B1076 lifted off for the first time from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 2:20 pm EST (19:20 UTC) on Saturday, November 26th.
Falcon 9 performed as expected and sailed through its 159th consecutively successful launch since January 2017. The rocket’s upper stage reached orbit and booster B1076 touched down on drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) around nine minutes after liftoff. Cargo Dragon deployed from Falcon 9’s upper stage a few minutes later, kicking off orbit-raising and rendezvous operations.
17 hours and 19 minutes later, Dragon successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS), making CRS-26’s rendezvous the second fastest in SpaceX history and the fastest completed by a Cargo Dragon. Dragon docked to the ISS carrying more than 3.5 tons (7777 lb) of cargo, including one ton of crew supplies and one ton of science experiments.
The single biggest payload, however, was the second of three sets of upgraded solar arrays that will eventually increase the total amount of power available to the ISS and its crew of international astronauts. Thanks to a new Roll-Out Solar Array technology that allows each of the six planned arrays to roll up into a compact cylinder, NASA has been able to fit two arrays at once inside the unpressurized ‘trunk’ section of SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon spacecraft. Each pair of arrays weighs around 1.2 tons (~2600 lb).
SpaceX launched the first pair of iROSA arrays in June 2021 and will likely launch the third and final pair in 2023. Combined, the six new iROSAs will initially be able to produce up to 168 kilowatts, though NASA also says it will only use a maximum of 120 kilowatts. Including the station’s old arrays, which will continue to be used in a limited capacity, the iROSA upgrade is expected to boost the total amount of power available for science and operations by 20-30%.
CRS-26 was SpaceX’s 54th launch of 2022, leaving the company just six launches away from hitting CEO Elon Musk’s target of 60 launches this year. SpaceX has at least one more launch – a Japanese Moon lander – scheduled before the end of the month. Out of the last eight months, only one has had less than five SpaceX launches, meaning that the odds are now firmly in favor of SpaceX achieving its goal. The Soviet Union’s R-7 rocket family currently holds the record for most successful launches in a calendar year, with 61 launches completed in 1980.