The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft moves into position for docking with the ISS

SpaceX Dragon capsule heads back to Earth

The SpaceX Dragon spaceship has begun its journey back to Earth after a successful test flight to the ISS.

Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon spaceship became the first privately owned vehicle to conduct a test flight to the $100 billion research complex, a project of 15 countries, last week.

Astronauts used the station's robot arm to pluck it from orbit and latch it onto a berthing port as the spacecraft sailed about 250 miles above the planet.

The bell-shaped capsule, which was partly financed by NASA, was detached from the station early this morning and was to be released from the station's crane about 90 minutes later.

Splashdown in the Pacific Ocean about 560 miles southwest of Los Angeles is expected later this morning.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, successfully 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 said.

The United States has been without its own transportation to the station since the space shuttles were retired last year.

NASA is investing in companies such as SpaceX with the intention of buying rides for its cargo - and eventually astronauts - on commercial vehicles, a far cheaper alternative to building and operating a government-owned replacement.

"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," Couluris said.

"We would call that mission alone a success."

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

A second commercial freighter, built by Orbital Sciences Corp is expected to debut 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 spokesman Barry Beneski said.

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

After leaving the space station, SpaceX's Dragon capsule will fire its steering jets to leave orbit and begin its plunge through the atmosphere.

Recovery ships owned by American Marine Corp of Los Angeles, will stand 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, and unloaded and inspected.

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

The rest of the 600 kg 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 program 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.

The only vehicles now flying to the station that return to Earth are Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which primarily are used to transport crew and have little room for cargo.

The other freighters are discarded and burn up in the atmosphere.

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