SpaceX Launches New Solar Arrays for International Space Station

SpaceX successfully launched the CRS-22 mission, which will deliver 7,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station. The payload includes two new solar panels out of a planned series of six, tardigrades, glowing baby squids, and supplies for the space station crew.

The upgraded solar panels are a compact version that can be rolled up like a sleeping bag and are easy to release and roll out once they are in place. By unlatching some pins holding them in the rolled-up position, the station crew will release the “strain energy” in the solar panels’ uncoiling carbon composite booms.

The new panels are designed to supplement the existing, more rigid solar panels that currently supply the International Space Station with electricity. The current solar panels have degraded with age, reducing their ability to produce power. With the addition of the new solar panels, electricity production could be boosted as much as thirty percent.

According to NASA space station program manager Joel Montalbano, this will enable the space station to boost its capacity to support onboard scientific research programs and planned expansions.

“We’re also working with a company called Axiom Space to add a module to the International Space Station, and this allows us to have enough power for that additional module and the other international partners … to maximize the use of the International Space Station. These new arrays give us that capability,” he said.

Axiom Space is currently working on new modules that can be added to a port on the International Space Station. It plans to have the first ones ready to add to the station’s Harmony module by 2024 and eventually spin the whole thing off into a fully independent space station by 2028. Axiom Space has also recently added more flights to its deal with SpaceX to launch private crewed missions to the International Space Station.

Planned research on the International Space Station includes work with the tardigrades, also known as “water bears,” and baby glowing squid. The research will include a study on how well the durable water bears handle the space environment and the effects of microgravity on symbiotic relationships between squid and symbiotic microbes that support digestion and the immune system. The Cargo Dragon is also delivering simulated organs that will assist with important medical research like a study on the formation of kidney stones.

The results of this research will be made publicly available and can be used to develop better treatments of medical conditions like kidney stones.

The cargo also includes gear for spacewalks, new computers, and space station hardware that can replace old components that have worn out over time. It also includes treats for the astronaut crew that includes fresh vegetables, which are hard to obtain on crew rotations that typically last five or six months, though there have been exceptions. Astronaut Scott Kelly spent nearly a year in space as part of studies on the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body that he and his twin brother, Mark Kelly, participated in.

(Yes, there was also a cosmonaut who was “stranded” on Mir when the Soviet Union dissolved. Sergei Konstantinovich Krikalev spent 311 days on the Mir space station in what had to be a highly stressful extended stay. He is apparently anything but a quitter, though. Krikalev went on to join the International Space Station’s Expedition 1, later commanded Expedition 11, and spent a total of 811 days in space.)

In an increasing rarity for SpaceX, it used a completely brand-new Falcon 9 rocket for the 22nd uncrewed resupply launch for the International Space Station under contract with NASA. It made the usual by-now-routine landing of the first stage booster on a drone barge. The first stage may be used in a later flight. The Cargo Dragon is expected to dock with the International Space Station early Saturday morning.