SpaceX launches DragonLab for recoverable scientific payload service

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Space Exploration Technologies is offering its Dragon capsule as a recoverable science cargo spacecraft with a first commercial flight target of 2010.

With the ability to return up to 3,000kg (6,600lb) of payload to Earth, SpaceX envisages that uses for its "DragonLab" will include instruments and sensor testing, radio and microgravity research, Earth observation and space environment and materials studies.

With flights lasting from a week to two years Dragon has a science payload volume capacity of up to 10m³ (352.5ft³) for experiments that need to be pressurised and 14m³ of unpressurised storage in the vehicle's trunk.

"We have a five-month turnaround [from authority to proceed to launch] that is faster than Shuttle for [International Space] station," says SpaceX's senior mission manager Max Vozoff.

He adds that the company already has one potential customer interested in a flight in 2010. Customers would buy a payload slot and that could be as the primary payload - able to decide when the launch takes place - or as a secondary payload.

Small satellites could also be deployed from the vehicle, stored within Dragon's unpressurised trunk. Possible customers include NASA centres, the US department of defence and commercial markets such as universities and corporations.

Dragon is designed as a man-rated vehicle that can carry cargo or a crew. Its launch vehicle SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is expected to make its maiden flight from Cape Canaveral next year. Designed before NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme began, the vehicle has since become a COTS candidate.

Read more about SpaceX and see exclusive images at Rob Coppinger's Hyperbola blog