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SpaceX Dragon Uses Space Station Robotic Arm for Berthing for the Last Time

SpaceX has been flying cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for years, but it’s gearing up to transport astronauts to and from the station soon. That’s not the only change in SpaceX’s space station activities. Elon Musk’s commercial spaceflight company just completed what could be the last Dragon berthing procedure ever at the station. It’s all docking from here on out. 

Since the beginning of its commercial resupply contract, SpaceX has been using the original Dragon capsule. However, it has been working on the improved Dragon 2 for several years. Naturally, the crewed version of the Dragon 2 gets most of the attention, but SpaceX also has a cargo version of this spacecraft. Future cargo missions will use this design instead of the classic Dragon, and that means some changes aboard the ISS. 

The current Dragon capsule uses a berthing procedure when it reaches the station. Astronauts aboard the ISS use the robotic Canadarm2 to pluck the capsule out of space and guide it to one of the Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) ports. NASA initially settled on this method because the CBM ports were 60 percent larger than standard docking ports (they’re the same ports that hold sections of the station together). This gives the crew more control over incoming vessels to make sure they don’t accidentally damage the station, but it eats up time. 

The Dragon 2 capsule autonomously docking at the ISS in March 2019.

The ongoing CRS-20 resupply mission will probably be the last time SpaceX needs to use the berthing system at the ISS. Starting with CRS-21 later this year, its Dragon 2 capsule will use autonomous docking to link up with the ISS. We’re already seen this in action, too. Last year’s test flight of the crew Dragon (without a crew) included an autonomous docking, and it went off without a hitch. 

The next step for Dragon 2 may well be a crewed launch later this spring. SpaceX says all its tests have been successful, so it’s just waiting on NASA approval. Astronauts on the Dragon 2 will have the option to take over control of the craft and dock manually, but the flight computer should handle things on its own. CRS-21 with the cargo-only Dragon will launch later in 2020. This craft won’t have seats, controls, or life support systems, but it will be able to dock itself at the ISS.

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