This screen grab taken from the NASA live feed shows the International Space Station taken from the SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft before docking, Saturday. - AFP

WASHINGTON: A recycled SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule with four astronauts docked with the International Space Station early yesterday, the third time Elon Musk's company has safely delivered humans to the orbital outpost. The spacecraft named Endeavour, piloting itself autonomously, began docking at 5:08 am Eastern time (0908 GMT) above the south Indian Ocean. The process was completed around 10 minutes later. "Hard capture complete, welcome Crew-2," said US astronaut Shannon Walker, current commander of the ISS. "Thanks Shannon, we're glad to be here," replied Endeavour's commander, US astronaut Shane Kimbrough. The crew will begin boarding after 7:15 am (1115 GMT) once the hatches are opened.

The Crew-2 mission, which includes the first European, Thomas Pesquet of France, blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida before dawn on Friday, around 23 hours earlier. Endeavor first flew to the ISS on the Demo-2 mission in May 2020, ending almost a decade of US reliance on Russia for rides to the ISS following the end of the Space Shuttle era. It was the first time a capsule has been reused for crewed spaceflight and the mission also featured a reused rocket, accomplishing key cost-saving goals of NASA's partnerships with private industry. Two Crew Dragons are now parked side by side at the ISS, underscoring hard-charging SpaceX's position as the US space agency's primary transport provider.

Musk has made no secret of his push to drive humanity onward to the Moon and Mars, and told a post-launch press conference: "I think we're at the dawn of a new era of space exploration." The arrival of the latest space quartet-which also includes American Megan McArthur and Japan's Akikho Hoshide-will bring the number of people on the station to 11. That's two shy of the record of 13 set in 2009.

Major step for Europe

The mission is also a major milestone for Europe, which named the mission "Alpha" after the star system Alpha Centauri. "This is really the golden era for us in terms of exploitation of the International Space Station," Frank De Winne, head of the European Space Agency (ESA)'s ISS program told AFP. Germany's Matthias Maurer and Italy's Samantha Cristoforetti are set to follow Pesquet on SpaceX missions, this fall and next spring respectively.

The next module of the ISS, built by Russia, should reach the station in July and will include a robotic arm built by ESA that Pesquet will help make operational, added De Winne. ESA will also be a key partner to the United States in the Artemis program to return to the Moon, providing the power and propulsion component for the Orion spacecraft, and critical elements of a planned lunar orbital station called Gateway.

Science goals

The Crew-2 team has around 100 experiments in the diary during their six-month mission. These include research into what are known as "tissue chips"-small models of human organs that are made up of different types of cells and used to study things like aging in the immune system, kidney function and muscle loss. In terms of the environment, by the time Crew-2 returns in fall, it will have taken 1.5 million images of the Earth, documenting phenomena like artificial lighting at night, algal blooms, and the breakup of Antarctic ice shelves. Another important element of the mission is upgrading the station's solar power system by installing new compact panels that roll open like a huge yoga mat. - AFP