By David Z. Morris
July 2, 2018

Early Monday, a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft that launched Friday will reach the International Space Station. When it arrives, a spindly robotic arm, operated by astronauts on board the station, will snag it from space and attach it to a port before unloading a cargo that includes a smiling, spherical assistant droid, replacement parts, and scientific experiments. Perhaps most exciting for the astronauts on board, the load will also include 60 pouches of dehydrated gourmet coffee.

Most of the process will be streamed live by NASA at nasa.gov/nasalive, starting at 5:30 a.m. ET on Monday, July 2. The attachment of Dragon to the space station is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Eastern.

The docking will be a surprisingly analog process using the Canadarm 2 robotic arm—built, as the name implies, by the Canadian Space Agency. It can be operated from a windowed bubble on the ISS by an astronaut using an array of joysticks and switches, as shown in this tour by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. The operator relies partly on direct visuals, with help from an array of cameras on the arm and detailed live telemetry on screens.

After Canadarm 2 “grapples” the Dragon, another lengthy process will connect it to a hatch in the station’s Harmony module. A Dragon first docked with the ISS back in 2012, and Monday’s docking will mark the 15th resupply by the vehicle. It will remain docked at the ISS for at least several days while the crew unloads its cargo.

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The Dragon is also, according to SpaceX, the only currently operating vehicle that can return “significant amounts of cargo” to Earth. For instance, the CRS-14 mission in May returned to the surface carrying a previous experimental space robot, known as Robonaut 2. That device was launched in 2011 and, like the CIMON droid arriving Monday, was intended to help astronauts around the station. But Robonaut 2 faced an array of technical problems over the course of its service.

The Dragon craft, known as CRS-15, was launched on what is expected to be the last flight of SpaceX’s “Block 4” version of the Falcon 9 rocket. Both the craft and the rocket were re-used from previous missions, continuing to demonstrate the fulfillment of SpaceX’s long-term goal of creating reusable spacecraft. The Block 4 Falcon 9 will be replaced by a Block 5 version, designed to increase that reusability further.

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