SpaceX Dragon Capsule Departs Space Station

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Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon capsule, the first privately owned vehicle to reach the International Space Station, was released early Thursday in preparation for a return to Earth at 11:44 a.m. EDT today.

Dragon blasted off May 22 for an ambitious test flight, a trial run before the company, also known as SpaceX, begins regular cargo runs to the station for NASA.

The United States has been without transportation to the station, which flies about 240 miles above Earth, since the space shuttles were retired last summer.

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SpaceX has recovered a Dragon capsule before, but the company wasn't taking anything for granted. 

"It's still a very challenging phase of flight," SpaceX mission director John Couluris told reporters on Wednesday.

Dragon debuted in December 2010.

NASA has hired a second company, Orbital Sciences Corp., for station resupply flights as well. 

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"Our plans are to carry out a test launch in the August-September time frame and the demonstration mission – same as what SpaceX impressively just did — in the November-December time frame," Orbital spokesman Barry Beneski wrote in an email to Discovery News.

After leaving the space station, Dragon was expected to fire its steering jets to leave orbit and begin its plunge through the atmosphere. It is expected to splash down in the Pacific Ocean about 564 miles southwest of Los Angeles.

Recovery ships will be standing by to pick up the capsule and bring it back to the Port of Los Angeles, a trip that should take two or three days.

From there, Dragon will be taken to a SpaceX processing facility in McGregor, Texas, and unloaded and inspected.

The company's last test will be to see if it can speedily return some equipment coming back from the station to NASA within 48 hours, a practice run for ferrying home precious science samples when Dragon begins regular cargo hauls.

The rest of the 1,300 lbs  of gear returning on Dragon is due to be sent to NASA within two weeks, said flight director Holly Ridings.

(Image: After six days attached to the International Space Station, the SpaceX Dragon capsule is given a crane ride off the outpost so it can begin its journey home. Credit: NASA TV/Irene Klotz) 

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