SpaceX's Dragon Capsule Returns Safely to Earth

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In a stunning debut test flight, Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon capsule returned from a two-orbit trial run around the planet, demonstrating it has the right stuff to carry NASA cargo — and perhaps eventually its astronauts as well — to the International Space Station.

The mission marked the first time a private company had returned a spacecraft from orbit, a key milestone in the company's quest to shoulder some of the cargo runs to the space station after NASA retires the shuttles next year. SpaceX, which is owned and operated by Elon Musk, is expected to share the work with Orbital Sciences Corp., which plans to test-fly its Taurus 4 rocket and Cygnus capsule next year.

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By then, SpaceX may be well on its way to actually docking at the space station. Today's successful mission should help the firm's case to combine the two remaining test flights under its NASA-backed development program and berth a Dragon capsule at the station during its next flight, targeted for Spring or Summer 2011.

WIDE ANGLE: Supplying the Space Station

Watch the Falcon 9 launch:

Image: The Dragon capsule being recovered off the coast of Mexico (SpaceX)