SpaceX Dragon departs International Space Station to return to Earth

SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule C209 has undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) and is now on track to reenter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico as early as Monday, January 24th.

As always, the timing and location of Dragon’s splashdown are both extremely sensitive to weather conditions in the area. NASA and SpaceX prefer daytime recoveries and the stillest sea and wind conditions possible, which is to say that current plans for Dragon C209 to splash down around 4:05 pm off the coast of Panama City, Florida are liable to change. In the meantime, the spacecraft has an approximately 20-hour coast ahead of it before SpaceX and NASA will have to decide whether or not to proceed with Monday evening’s recovery.

Barring surprises, C209’s return to Earth will be the first of up to six Dragon reentries and recoveries scheduled in 2022. Up next, SpaceX is preparing to launch Axiom-1 (Ax-1) – Crew Dragon’s first fully private mission to the ISS – no earlier than (NET) March 31st. The reused spacecraft will then attempt its third crewed orbital reentry and splashdown – a first for Dragon 2 and crewed space capsules – around two weeks later.

Cargo Dragon C209’s second arrival at the ISS, December 22nd, 2021. (NASA)

Days later, Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch Crew-4 – NASA’s fourth operational crew transport mission with four astronauts – around April 15th. Crew-4 will join Crew-3 at the ISS and Crew-3 will return to Earth in their own Crew Dragon spacecraft a few days later – perhaps around April 20th. Like all other operational Crew missions, Crew-4 will spend approximately six months in orbit, during which SpaceX is scheduled to launch its two Cargo Dragon 2 missions of the year – CRS-25 and CRS-26 – NET May and September 2022. CRS-26’s Cargo Dragon will likely return to Earth in mid-October. Freeing up a space station docking port for Crew Dragon’s Crew-5 launch NET October 25th.

Again, if things go according to plan, Crew-4 will hand off the ISS to Crew-5 in person and depart around Halloween or early November, ending SpaceX’s Dragon launch and recovery operations for the year. Ultimately, SpaceX has plans for as many as five Dragon launches and six Dragon reentries in 2022, transporting about 12 tons (25,000 lb) of cargo and up to 16 astronauts to or from the ISS.

Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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