SpaceX launches 19th cargo mission to space station with robot aboard

By Paul Brinkmann
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the Dragon capsule for NASA at 12:29 p.m. Wednesday from Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Photo by Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell/UPI
1 of 3 | A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the Dragon capsule for NASA at 12:29 p.m. Wednesday from Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Photo by Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell/UPI | License Photo

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla., Dec. 5 (UPI) -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched into a bright Florida sky Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the company's 19th cargo mission to the International Space Station.

The rocket, lifting off at 12:29 p.m., carried 5,700 pounds of supplies, experiments and a new version of the CIMON robot designed to interact with astronauts. The onboard robot is designed to float in the space station's habitat.


SpaceX had postponed a launch attempt Wednesday because of strong high-altitude winds that could knock the Falcon 9 rocket off course, but company officials said the weather was ideal Thursday and the launch came on time.

The first-stage booster of the rocket, which had not been used previously, landed on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean about eight minutes after launch. A live feed showing the barge was interrupted as the booster descended, causing a gasp from the group watching at SpaceX headquarters. The feed was restored a few seconds later and showed the booster standing safely upright.


The Dragon capsule will travel through space for several days as it catches up to the station. On Dec. 8, the capsule will make a slow approach to space station, and astronauts on board will capture it using the station's Canadarm and attach it to an airlock.

After being unpacked and repacked, the capsule is scheduled to leave the space station from the station and re-enter Earth's atmosphere in January, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California with 3,600 pounds of return cargo.

The robot being sent to the space station, CIMON -- an acronym for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion -- is capable of conversing with astronauts, helping them remember procedures and eventually detecting their mood in case of problems on board. It was built by Airbus with help from IBM and the German Aerospace Center.

The first version of CIMON was tested on the station in November 2018 with mixed results. Video showed German astronaut Alexander Gerst switching on the robot and holding a five-minute conversation with it. CIMON appeared to malfunction, floating down toward the deck of the station despite Gerst's attempt to pull it back.

But the robot did answer questions and play a song that was billed as Gerst's favorite in the video, The Man Machine, by German band Kraftwerk. Finally CIMON told Gerst to "Be nice to me," prompting snickers from the crew.


At one point in the conversation, the robot responded with comments about dancing when Gerst told it to "cancel" the music it was playing.

"The first CIMON was sent back to Earth and will go to a museum," said Till Eisenberg, a project manager for Airbus. "The new version has better microphones and software life that can last up to three years in space."

The goal, Eisenberg said, is to have CIMON support the crew's mental health and mood with conversation. It also could be equipped with sensors, such as those that would detect carbon monoxide if astronauts appear groggy.

Other items on the rocket included a high-tech toolbox, designed to be mounted outside the station, and a new hyperspectral Earth imaging system that was developed by the Japanese government for use in oil exploration among other things.

The toolbox will hold two leak detectors, and help reduce preparation time in space because they no longer will be brought through airlocks. The leak detectors are equipped with mass spectrometers that can find small leaks from the space station, NASA said.

The tool stowage assembly was developed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.


The Dragon capsule that carried the cargo previously flew on SpaceX's CRS-6 and CRS-11 missions.

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