Watch SpaceX launch its first updated cargo Dragon capsule at 11:17AM ET

The vessel can dock entirely on its own.

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Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

SpaceX’s crewed flights have garnered the most attention lately, but the uncrewed variety is about to retake the spotlight. The company is launching its updated cargo Dragon capsule for the first time at 11:17AM Eastern from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The CRS-21 mission to the International Space Station comes nine months after the original Dragon launched for the last time, and represents a major milestone precisely for how little work will be involved — this should be SpaceX’s most reliable hauler yet.

The new cargo Dragon is a modification of Crew Dragon that can dock with the ISS entirely autonomously rather than requiring help from astronauts helming the Canadarm. It also boasts 20 percent more cargo volume than the earlier cargo model, including double the powered locker capability. It should last longer than earlier capsules, too. It can stay attached to the ISS for over twice as long, and it’s now designed for up to five return trips.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifting the capsule to orbit is the same one that carried astronauts to the ISS during the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission.

Provided everything goes according to plan, this could significantly lower the costs for both supply missions and SpaceX as a whole. As TechCrunch observed, this should simplify SpaceX’s capsule production. The improved capacity and reusability could also reduce the number of capsules SpaceX needs to make and fly. That, in turn, could save money for NASA and the public.

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