Video: SpaceX capsule splashes down in Pacific

DRAGON LEAVING ISS

Photo credit: ESA/NASA

A SpaceX "Dragon" capsule smoothly undocked, and headed away on its way home during a test mission to the International Space Station (ISS) last May. Another Dragon that delivered much-needed supplies to the ISS three weeks ago will splash down today in the Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: ESA/NASA

SpaceX's unmanned Dragon capsule has splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean about 200 miles from the baja california coast after its first supply delivery mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX controllers in Hawthorned confirmed the splashdown occurred at 12:22 p.m. PDT.

Minutes before, the spacecraft jettisoned its solar panels and turned so its heat shield could take the brunt of the atmospheric friction during re-entry. The heat shield is made of PICA-X - a thermal resistant material that can withstand temperatures of more than 3300 degrees Farenheit.

When Dragon was 45,000 feet above the Earth's surface, small drogue parachutes popped out to slow its descent. At 10,000 feet, the capsule's three main parachutes opened.

A 100-foot boat recovery vessel will haul the Dragon to Los Angeles. From there, it will be transported to McGregor, Texas.

The successful landing ends the Hawthorne-based firm's first of a dozen supply delivery missions under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The mission also began a new era in American space exploration led by rockets and capsules designed, built and operated not by NASA but by private firms.

The Dragon capsule is the first U.S. supply ship sent to the ISS since the Atlantis space shuttle made its final delivery trip in July 2011. It's the second Dragon to return from the orbiting lab; the first mission in May was a flight demonstration.

The shuttle program is now retired after more than 30 years. Now cargo - and soon astronauts - will head into space from U.S. launchpads on board SpaceX's Dragon capsule, powered by the company's Falcon rockets.

The Dragon capsule that landed today carried nearly a ton of science experiments and old equipment that had been on board the ISS. The Dragon is the only space vehicle able to land safely on Earth. A Russian supply ship set to blast off this week will burn up upon descent at mission's end. So do the cargo vessels provided by Europe and Japan.

The scientific cargo on board the Dragon includes about 500 frozen samples of blood and urine collected by astronauts for the past year. The samples are important for ongoing NASA research into the health challenges of extended space flights, like the kind astronauts will need to take to reach Mars.

The medical samples will be removed as quickly as possible, and turned over to NASA within 48 hours of splashdown, according to SpaceX. Everything else will wait for unloading in McGregor.

"It was nice while she was on board," space station commander Sunita Williams said as the Dragon backed away from the ISS today. "We tamed her, took her home and, literally and figuratively, there's a piece of us on that spacecraft going home to Earth."

She added to the SpaceX  flight controllers in Hawthorne: "Congratulations Hawthorne and thank you for her."

SpaceX is working to transform its Dragon cargo craft into vessels that American astronauts could fly in another four or five years. Until SpaceX  or another U.S. company is able to provide rides, NASA astronauts must rely on Russian rockets to get to and from the space station.

Here's a timelapse video of the Dragon departing from the space station, courtesy of Space X:

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