The trip marked the completion of SpaceX’s 12th space station resupply mission under the terms of its multibillion-dollar contract with NASA. “Godspeed, Dragon 12,” Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli said as the Dragon was released by the station’s robotic arm.
Dragon’s parachute-assisted Pacific Ocean splashdown came five and a half hours later, at around 7:15 a.m. PT off the coast of Southern California. A recovery ship was sent to pick up the capsule and bring it back to Long Beach for shipment to SpaceX’s processing facility in Texas. The mice and other time-sensitive payloads will be delivered to NASA on an expedited basis.
The Rodent Research-9 study is aimed at investigating how extended periods of weightlessness affects blood vessels in the brain and the eyes, as well as tracking cartilage loss in hip and knee joints. The results could help scientists figure out new ways to help astronauts cope with the health effects of zero-G, and help arthritis patients back on Earth.
The research facilities working on the experiments – including the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which is supporting the Parkinson’s disease research – will be looking forward to follow-up studies on the samples. Unfortunately, the mice don’t have as much to look forward to. Once they’re brought to the lab, they’ll be euthanized and dissected for study.
SpaceX’s Dragon is currently the only space vehicle capable of bringing substantial shipments back to Earth from the space station. Other robotic cargo craft, such as Russia’s Progress and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus, burn up during atmospheric re-entry. Russia’s crewed Soyuz spacecraft can bring people back from space, but there’s not much extra room for cargo.