WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US company SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vessel was released by the robotic arm of the International Space Station early Thursday at the start of its return to Earth from an historic mission.
The unmanned cargo vessel then fired up its engines in three departure “burns” to power it towards the Earth’s atmosphere, where it is set to splashdown intact in the Pacific Ocean off California at 1544 GMT.
The capsule has already made history as the first commercial cargo ship to successfully travel to the orbiting research lab, a step hailed by US officials as heralding a new era of privatized space flight.
“An extremely successful joint mission between the space station and Dragon... is coming to a close now,” the NASA spokesman said as the two spacecraft drifted away from one another. “Everything looks good.” Dragon will come streaking back to earth “like a burning comet,” protected from the extreme reentry temperatures with a sophisticated heat shield and directed to the landing spot with powerful thrusters, NASA said. “We have a lot ahead of us on the SpaceX side,” said the company’s mission director John Couluris in a briefing with reporters Wednesday, on the eve of the spacecraft’s return after a seven-day mission to the orbiting outpost. “We have done it once,” he said, referring to the Dragon’s test flight in December 2010, when the capsule entered and returned safely from orbit for the first time.
“But it is still a very challenging phase of flight,” he added. “We are not taking this lightly at all.” The capsule is set to land 490 nautical miles (907 kilometers) off the coast of Los Angeles, where three recovery boats are standing by.
It will then be transported to Texas so that the cargo it is bringing back can be returned to NASA, though the US space agency cautioned that if anything goes wrong, there is nothing crucial on board.
“There is not anything coming home that we couldn’t afford to not get back,” NASA flight director Holly Ridings said Wednesday.
The cargo ship was launched on May 22 with 521 kilograms (1,148 pounds) of gear for the space lab, including food, supplies, computers, utilities and science experiments. It plans to return a 660-kilogram load to Earth.