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, NASA said.
“Dragon is free from the International Space Station,” a NASA TV spokesman announced at 0949 GMT, as a live video feed showed the white capsule floating against the backdrop of the blue planet.
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 TV 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.
The capsule is supposed to make an ocean landing 490 nautical miles (907 kilometers) southwest of Los Angeles, where three vessels are standing by as recovery boats.
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.
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.
If Thursday’s reentry succeeds, Dragon will be the only cargo capsule capable of return shipments to Earth, as the cargo craft operated by other countries are destroyed after making deliveries to the station, NASA said.
The United States retired its space shuttle fleet last year, leaving cargo missions up to the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Europe.
Until private US ventures come up with a replacement vehicle that can carry humans to the $100 billion orbiting lab, the world’s astronauts must rely on Russia’s Soyuz capsules, at $63 million a ticket.
SpaceX, owned by billionaire Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, says it aims to begin taking people to the space station by 2015.