Image: Falcon 9
NASA
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, topped by a Dragon cargo capsule, rises from its launch pad at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida during preparations for Sunday's scheduled launch to the International Space Station.
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updated 10/7/2012 2:14:29 AM ET 2012-10-07T06:14:29

A private company is on the verge of launching another cargo ship to the International Space Station.

On Sunday night, California-based SpaceX is due to send a Dragon capsule to the orbiting lab and its three-member crew.

Liftoff of the company's unmanned Falcon rocket is scheduled for 8:35 p.m. ET. Forecasters put the odds of acceptable weather at 60 percent. Thick clouds and rain are the main concerns.

A Dragon cargo ship successfully docked to the space station last May, but that was considered a test flight. The coming mission is the first under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA that calls for a dozen resupply flights by SpaceX, essential in the post-shuttle era.

"We got there once. We demonstrated we could do it, so there might be a teeny, teeny bit of relaxation. Not a lot, though," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told reporters Saturday night.

NASA was monitoring a potentially threatening piece of orbiting junk, but said that even if the space station had to steer clear of the object, that would not delay the SpaceX mission.

This newest Dragon will haul about 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) of food, clothes and gear, including ice cream for the American, Russian and Japanese astronauts on board. (The ice cream will go up in freezers meant for research). Even more cargo will be coming back.

The capsule will remain docked to the space station for most of October. Astronauts will fill the capsule with blood and urine samples, other experiments and old equipment, for its return to Earth at the end of the month. By then, the complex will be back to a full crew of six.

The nearly 500 tubes of blood and syringes of urine have been stashed in space station freezers since the last space shuttle flight, by Atlantis, in July 2011. The decommissioned Atlantis, and sister ships Discovery and Endeavour, are now museum relics.

NASA nutritionist Scott Smith said these blood and urine samples — part of medical studies — will be the first to be returned since Atlantis' final voyage.

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"This is the first real return vehicle for this type of sample," Scott said.

The cargo ships periodically flown by Russia, Japan and Europe do not have the capability to return anything; they burn up upon re-entry. The SpaceX Dragon capsules parachute down into the Pacific for retrieval, reminiscent of NASA's old-time capsules.

"While it may seem very strange to some folks, my typical line is that, 'It may be urine to you, but it's gold to us,'" Smith said. "There's a lot of science that comes out of this."

NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, is also thrilled about having an American spacecraft bearing goods. It's much easier to get last-minute equipment aboard a U.S. capsule, he noted. The Dragon, for example, will carry up a new pump for the space station's urine-into-drinking water recycling system.

"Shipping and customs can kill you when you're trying to get overseas," Suffredini said.

SpaceX — or Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — is run by billionaire Elon Musk, a co-founder of PayPal who also directs the electric car maker Tesla Motors.

His space company is working to turn the unmanned Dragon vessels into craft that could carry Americans to the space station in the coming years. Until SpaceX or another U.S. company can do that, NASA astronauts will have to keep riding on Russian rockets at a steep cost.

SpaceX estimates it will be ready to launch crews aboard Dragons in three years.

NASA, meanwhile, expects to name within a few weeks the U.S. astronaut and Russian cosmonaut who will spend an entire year aboard the space station, beginning in spring 2015, twice the usual length for a mission. Suffredini said the list of potential candidates is "very short."

Another NASA official said only previous space station crew members are under consideration for the two slots because they're already trained in the systems of the orbiting complex.

On Friday, the space agency confirmed that it would commit to a yearlong mission to learn what it will take for humans to journey beyond low-Earth orbit — Mars, for example.

Russia already knows. Three cosmonauts spent at least a year aboard the old Mir space station; the record for a single stint is almost 15 months.

No American has spent more than seven months in space at a time.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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