On February 23rd SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft successfully delivered 5,500 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station. This was not the first time that the private space company had achieved this feat, the first was in 2012. Its payload included mice that were to be used in experiments to determine how fast wounds heal in space as well as samples of the MRSA virus and stem cells. Whether all of this indicates that private companies are likely to be the future of space exploration is unclear, although SpaceX have big ambitions, including going to Mars.
The mice that were delivered will be used by scientists on board the ISS to carry out experiments aimed at uncovering how fast wounds heal in zero gravity. Twenty mice were delivered to the space station and a further twenty on Earth will act as the control group in the experiment. The experiment with MRSA is also particularly fascinating; scientists want to find out how the weightless environment will cause the pathogen to develop in the future which, they believe, may lead to a cure of the virus that causes more that 11,000 deaths per year in the US.
SpaceX claims that Dragon is currently the only spacecraft capable of delivering significant amounts of cargo to Earth. Moreover, the company is currently developing modifications to the craft that will allow it to fly crew in the future. This is an exciting leap forward in space exploration and would prove to be a real milestone for private space exploration. However, even though the first manned test flight is scheduled for 2018 SpaceX still have a long way to go in proving that their rockets can be safe after numerous failures and explosions on the launch pads at Cape Canaveral.
Nonetheless despite their failures, and this is to be expected from a relatively new and highly ambitious company, they have still had their successes. However, as far as any planned missions to Mars in the future are concerned SpaceX still have a very long way to go. Their planned rocket system is larger than the Saturn V and contains a nuclear reactor to power the systems of the landing module – this is something that has never been attempted before and may well prove to be too much like science fiction for it to go ahead in reality.
By Sam Cottle