SpaceX cargo ship returns to Earth

CBS News

A commercial cargo capsule loaded with experiment samples and no-longer-needed components plunged back to Earth Tuesday, wrapping up a month-long space station resupply mission with an on-target splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Owned and operated by Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif., the capsule descended under three large parachutes to an ocean landing west of Baja California, Mexico, at 12:34 p.m. EDT (GMT-4). A recovery crew was standing by to secure the spacecraft and haul it back to port near Los Angeles.

A SpaceX Dragon capsule descends toward an on-target Pacific Ocean splashdown Tuesday after the company's second operational space station resupply mission. (Credit: SpaceX)
The SpaceX Dragon capsule is the only operational spacecraft capable of delivering cargo and supplies to the space station and returning sizable equipment and experiment samples back to Earth. This was the company's second operational flight under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA that calls for at least 12 resupply missions.

SpaceX launched the capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket on March 1. After resolving problems with the spacecraft's propellant pressurization system, the Dragon's on-board computer executed a flawless rendezvous with the International Space Station. Two days after launch, the station's arm captured the spacecraft and maneuvered it into position for berthing.

The Dragon delivered some 2,300 pounds of supplies, spare parts and science gear, including 178 pounds of crew provisions, 300 pounds of space station hardware and more than 700 pounds of science equipment, including a pair of Glacier freezers and experiment components.

For its return to Earth, the capsule was packed with about 1.5 tons of experiment samples, no-longer-needed components, broken hardware, trash and other gear. High-priority biological samples stored in a freezer and cold bags will be removed and turned over to NASA as soon as the recovery ship reaches port.

Other cargo will remain aboard until the spacecraft is delivered to SpaceX's McGregor, Texas, processing facility.

"There are more than 200 active investigations underway aboard our orbiting laboratory in space," Julie Robinson, NASA's space station program scientist, said in a statement. "The scientific community has eagerly awaited the return of today's Dragon to see what new insights the returned samples and investigations it carries will unveil."

The long trip home began early Tuesday -- one day latest because of high seas in the landing zone -- when the station's robot arm detached the Dragon from the forward Harmony module's Earth-facing port. Astronaut Thomas Marshburn then released the spacecraft at 6:56 a.m.

"Sad to see the Dragon go," he told flight controllers in Houston. "She performed her job beautifully (and is) heading back to her lair. Wish her all the best for the splashdown today."

The spacecraft then carried out a series of thruster firings to move a safe distance away before a 10-minute-long rocket firing at 11:42 a.m. to drop the craft out of orbit. Re-entry apparently went off without a hitch, the capsule's three large braking parachutes deployed normally and SpaceX reported splashdown at 12:34 p.m.

"Recovery ship has secured Dragon," SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a Tweet. "Powering down all secondary systems. Cargo looks A ok."

The next SpaceX flight to the space station is targeted for late November.