SpaceX capsule headed for return trip to Earth

Mon Mar 25, 2013 4:00pm EDT
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* Arrived at space station on March 3

* Packed with experiment samples, old gear

* Test launch for NASA's second cargo hauler in April

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 25 (Reuters) - A Space Exploration Technologies' cargo ship parked at the International Space Station for three weeks returns to Earth on Tuesday and will ferry back experiment samples key to ongoing science research.

The Dragon spaceship, built and operated by the privately owned company known as SpaceX, is due to depart the orbital outpost at 7:06 a.m. EDT (1106 GMT) and parachute down into the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico's Baja California about 5-1/2 hours later.

A skeleton crew of three astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the space station will oversee Dragon's release. Three new crew members are due to launch to the orbital complex, a $100 billion project of 15 nations, on Thursday and, for the first time, arrive the same day.

The Dragon cargo ship reached the station on March 3 with more than 2,300 pounds (1,043 kg) of science equipment, spare parts, food and supplies. It was the second of 12 planned cargo runs for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract. A second freighter, built and operated by Orbital Sciences Corp is expected to debut this year.

The U.S. space agency hired both firms to fill the gap left by the retirement of its space shuttle fleet in 2011.   Continued...