SpaceX Dragon 2 has returned to Earth

Dragon left the International Space Station earlier loaded with science gear. The capsule returned at around 11:30 a.m. CDT today (16:30 UTC) after a five-hour journey from space to splashdown.

The second SpaceX Dragon – a commercially developed cargo craft – has successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico’s Baja California this morning (March 26, 2013). Splashdown was scheduled for splashdown at 11:34 a.m. CDT (1634 UTC) this morning, and SpaceX confirmed the Dragon’s return to Earth via Twitter. Dragon departed the International Space Station earlier today, carrying a load of thousands of pounds of experiment samples and gear, for a rapid return to Earth that required just over five hours from space to splashdown.

ISS astronauts used the space station’s robotic arm to pluck Dragon from its berthing port and release it back to Earth orbit and, ultimately, splashdown. The ISS and Dragon were 252 miles above Australia at the time.

On departing from ISS earlier today, SpaceX Dragon turned back toward the space station and captured this image. Image via SpaceX and NASA.

On departing from ISS earlier today, SpaceX Dragon turned back toward the space station and captured this image. Image via SpaceX and NASA.

This was the second flight for the SpaceX Dragon. The first made history last May as the first privately built spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station. Now, SpaceX is expected to send regular re-supply missions to the orbiting space station and to continue to work to launch astronauts into orbit in a few years. Dragon is designed to carry up to seven astronauts at a time. Last May, after the first Dragon made its successful return to Earth, SpaceX founder, CEO and chief designer Elon Musk said:

We are hoping to continue working with NASA and hopefully flying crew within three years. This was a crucial step and makes the chances of becoming a multi planet species more likely.

The first SpaceX Dragon capsule pauses near the International Space Station on May 31, 2012 so the ISS' robotic arm can grapple and berth it to a port on the station. Today's Dragon departure from ISS was similar. Photo via NASA

The first SpaceX Dragon capsule pauses near the International Space Station on May 31, 2012 so the ISS’ robotic arm can grapple and berth it to a port on the station. Similarly, Dragon was removed from ISS by robotic arm, earlier today (March 26). Photo via NASA

A look inside the Dragon cargo capsule after it was connected to the International Space Station. Photo via NASA

A look inside the Dragon 1 cargo capsule after it was connected to the International Space Station. Photo via NASA

This year, Dragon launched on March 1 and reached ISS on March 3 with more than 2,300 pounds (1,043 kg) of science equipment, spare parts, food and supplies. In all, there are currently 12 planned cargo runs to ISS planned by Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, under a $1.6 billion NASA contract.

SpaceX is not the only private space company with a NASA contract. A second freighter, built and operated by Orbital Sciences Corp, is expected to go into action later this year. NASA hired both private companies to fill the gap left by the retirement of its space shuttle fleet in 2011.

As Dragon left ISS today, station flight engineer Thomas Marshburn radioed to Mission Control in Houston:

It looks beautiful from here. Sad to see the Dragon go. Performed her job beautifully, heading back to her lair. Wish her all the best for the splashdown today.

Bottom line: Space X Dragon left the International Space Station earlier today (March 26, 2013) and has now splashed down in the Pacific.

Deborah Byrd