SpaceX Dragon prepares to land

2012-05-31 17:50

Cape Canaveral - Astronauts aboard the International Space Station released Space Exploration Technologies' unmanned Dragon cargo ship on Thursday, one of the final milestones in a pioneering mission for commercial firms seeking a major role in space travel.

Dragon, which arrived Friday as part of a test flight, was the first privately owned spaceship to reach the $100bn orbital outpost, a 15-nation project. It was scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean about 900km southwest of Los Angeles at 11:44 EDT (15:44 GMT).

The United States has been without its own transportation to the space station since its space shuttles were retired last year, leaving Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which are used mainly to transport crew and have little room for cargo, as the only vehicles now flying to the station that return to Earth.

Rather than build and operate a government-owned replacement, Nasa is investing in companies such as Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, with the aim of buying rides for its cargo - and eventually astronauts - on commercial vehicles, a far cheaper alternative.

The successful trial run is expected to clear SpaceX to begin working off its 12-flight, $1.6bn Nasa contract to fly cargo to the station.

A second commercial freighter, built by Orbital Sciences is expected to d├ębut this year.

"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 spokesperson Barry Beneski wrote in an email to Reuters.

SpaceX's billionaire founder and Pretoria Boys High matriculant, Elon Musk of PayPal fame, expects to have astronauts riding his Dragons in three or four years, AP reports.

Orbital has a similar contract to deliver space station cargo, valued at $1.9bn.

Release the Dragon

In Thursday's operation, astronauts detached the Dragon capsule from its berthing port at 04:07 EDT (08:07 GMT) using the station's 17.7m robotic crane, and released it at 05:49 EDT (09:49 GMT) as the spacecraft soared 420km above the planet.

"It's been an extremely successful joint mission," said Nasa mission commentator Josh Byerly.

SpaceX successful recovered a Dragon capsule from orbit during a previous test flight in December 2010.

"We've done it once, but it's still a very challenging phase of flight," SpaceX mission director John Couluris told reporters on Wednesday.

"The ability to get to [the] space station on our first time, to not only rendezvous but then to berth, transfer cargo and depart safely are major mission objectives. We would call that mission alone a success," Couluris said.

After leaving the space station, the Dragon capsule fired its steering jets to leave orbit and head back toward Earth. Recovery ships owned by American Marine of Los Angeles were 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, unloaded and inspected.

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

The rest of the 590kg of gear returning on Dragon is due to be sent to Nasa within two weeks, said flight director Holly Ridings.

"Because this is a test flight, specifically the programme made sure that there's not anything coming home that we couldn't afford to not get back," she said.

"I know it's a really important capability to prove for Nasa and for the space station program as we go forward, since this vehicle has the unique capability to return cargo," Ridings said.

Deorbit burn

The unmanned Dragon cargo vessel operated by US company SpaceX on Thursday completed its deorbit burn, one of the final steps in its return to Earth for an ocean landing, Nasa said to AFP.

"The SpaceX team has confirmed that the burn has been completed," a Nasa television commentator said.

Next, a series of parachutes are to be deployed as the capsule aims for a landing in the Pacific Ocean, 907km southwest of the coast of California, where recovery boats are waiting.

The splashdown is scheduled for 11:44 am Eastern time (15:44 GMT).