SpaceX’s Dragon capsule for astronauts blazes through crucial hover test

With every test, with every launch, with every landing – and with every unfortunate fiery explosion – SpaceX is edging toward its dream of creating a space transportation system that drastically reduces the cost of missions and one day could even take it to Mars.

While all the recent attention has been on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and its landing technology, engineers have also been working hard on developing the latest version of its Dragon capsule.

The spacecraft, which is currently used to take supplies to the International Space Station, always returns to Earth with a splash, dropping into the ocean with its descent slowed by parachutes.

But SpaceX wants it to land on hard ground using thrusters, like it’s been trying with varying degrees of success with its Falcon 9 rocket. While such landings for the capsule would of course eliminate the need for salvage teams to head out to sea, it’s also crucially important if SpaceX has any hope of achieving its long-term aim of missions to Mars, a place where, the last time we looked, no oceans were sloshing around.

Offering a glimpse into its work, the space company this week released a video (above) of a recent test of the SuperDraco thrusters designed to bring the Dragon 2 capsule – the version designed for manned missions – gently back to the ground “with the accuracy of a helicopter.”

As the footage shows, the thrusters all fire up together to raise the spacecraft for a five-second hover, “generating approximately 33,000 lbs of thrust before returning the vehicle to its resting position,” SpaceX said in comments accompanying the video.

The tests, which are taking place at a SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas, allow engineers to refine the spacecraft’s landing software and systems, NASA said. The first Dragon flights taking astronauts to the International Space Station could take place as early as next year, though for the time being the return trips to Earth are likely to still involve parachute landings in the sea.

Emerging Tech

Say cheese: InSight lander posts a selfie from the surface of Mars

NASA's InSight mission to Mars has commemorated its arrival by posting a selfie. The selfie is a composite of 11 different images which were taken by one of its instruments, the Instrument Deployment Camera.
Emerging Tech

We’re going to the Red Planet! All the past, present, and future missions to Mars

SpaceX isn't the only organization pining to visit the Red Planet. Here's a detailed list of all operational and planned missions to Mars, along with explanations of their objectives, spacecraft details, and mission proposals.
Emerging Tech

Virgin Galactic’s latest test flight takes it to the edge of space

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has successfully carried out its fourth powered flight in Mojave, California. It was the company's most ambitious test flight yet -- and bodes well for the future.
Emerging Tech

Prepare for liftoff: Here are all the important upcoming SpaceX rocket launches

From ISS resupply missions to a host of communication and scientific satellite launches, SpaceX has a busy year ahead. Here's a rundown of some of the company's most important missions slated for the next year.
Emerging Tech

Bright ‘hyperactive’ comet should be visible in the sky this weekend

An unusual green comet, 46P/Wirtanen, will be visible in the night sky this month as it makes its closest approach to Earth in 20 years. It may even be possible to see the comet without a telescope.
Emerging Tech

Gorgeous images show storms and cloud formations in the atmosphere of Jupiter

NASA's Juno mission arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and has been collecting data since then. NASA has shared an update on the progress of the mission as it reaches its halfway point, releasing stunning images of the planet as seen from orbit.
Emerging Tech

Meet the MIT scientist who’s growing semi-sentient cyborg houseplants

Elowan is a cybernetic plant that can respond to its surroundings. Tethered by a few wires and silver electrodes, the plant-robot hybrid can move in response to bioelectrochemical signals that reflect the plant’s light demands.
Emerging Tech

Beautiful image of young planets sheds new light on planet formation

Researchers examining protoplanetary disks -- the belts of dust that eventually form planets -- have shared fascinating images of the planets from their survey, showing the various stages of planet formation.
Emerging Tech

Delivery robot goes up in flames while out and about in California

A small meal-delivery robot suddenly caught fire in Berkeley, California, on Friday. The blaze was quickly tackled and no one was hurt, but the incident is nevertheless a troubling one for the fledgling robot delivery industry.
Emerging Tech

High-tech dancing robot turns out to be a guy in a costume

A Russian TV audience was impressed recently by an adult-sized "robot" that could dance and talk. But when some people began pointing out that its actions were a bit odd, the truth emerged ... it was a fella in a robot suit.
Emerging Tech

MIT’s smart capsule could be used to release drugs in response to a fever

Researchers have developed a 3D-printed capsule which can monitor patients' vital signs, transmit this information to a connected device, and release drugs in response to symptoms.
Emerging Tech

‘Crop duster’ robot is helping reseed the Great Barrier Reef with coral

In a world first, an undersea robot has delivered microscopic coral larvae to the Great Barrier Reef. Meet Larvalbot: the robot "crop duster" which dispenses coral babies on troubled reefs.
Emerging Tech

Self-driving dirt rally vehicle offers crash course in autonomous car safety

Georgia Tech's AutoRally initiative pushes self-driving cars to their limit by getting scaled-down autonomous vehicles to drive really, really fast and aggressively on dirt roads. Here's why.

Cities looking to get smart take a lesson from an iconic shopping mall

From Disney World to the Mall of America, public venues are becoming microcosms for smart city projects. We dove into both, to show what government officials can learn – and what you can expect from your city.