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SpaceX capsule returns to Earth

May. 18, 2014 - 05:16PM   |  

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MELBOURNE, FLA. — One month after it launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule returned to Earth on Sunday.

The unpiloted Dragon splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, about 300 miles west of Baja California, just five hours after leaving the International Space Station at 9:26 a.m. EDT.

NASA astronaut and station commander Steve Swanson controlled a 58-foot robotic arm that pulled the Dragon from its Harmony node port at 8 a.m., then released the capsule into space 266 miles over the ocean south of Australia.

The spacecraft completed three thruster firings to move a safe distance from the station and its three-person Expedition 40 crew.

“Thanks to everybody who worked this Dragon mission; it went very well,” Swanson radioed to the ground. “It’s also very nice to have a vehicle that can take your science equipment, and maybe some day even humans, back to Earth.”

The Dragon launched April 18 and arrived at the space station April 20 with about 5,000 pounds of supplies. It is returning home with 3,564 pounds of science samples, crew supplies and vehicle hardware.

Dragon is the only cargo vehicle operating today that can return significant amounts of cargo to the ground. Russian, European and Japanese cargo freighters, plus Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus, all are destroyed during reentry into the atmosphere.

Russia’s Soyuz carries three people up and down, but little else. The Dragon is one of several contenders to resume flights of NASA crews on U.S. vehicles in a few years.

Thrusters will fire at 2:08 p.m. EDT to begin the Dragon’s fall to Earth. An unpressurized trunk that delivered two experiments to the station will be jettisoned before reentry. The splashdown will not be televised, but SpaceX is expected to report its progress on Twitter.

The mission was SpaceX’s third of at least 12 under a $1.6 billion NASA resupply contract. The fourth is tentatively planned in August.

Before then, Orbital is planning its second contracted launch of a Cygnus to the station June 10 from Virginia.

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