Image: SpaceX's Dragon capsule is pictured after splashing down approximately 250 miles off the coast of southern California
SpaceX via Reuters
SpaceX's Dragon capsule is pictured after safely splashing down approximately 250 miles off the coast of southern California on Sunday.
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updated 10/28/2012 9:05:28 AM ET 2012-10-28T13:05:28

NASA's first commercial cargo flight ended with a splash on Sunday, when the SpaceX Dragon capsule landed after a landmark mission to the International Space Station.

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The unmanned Dragon space capsule, built by the U.S. company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), splashed down into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT), ending a three-week visit to the orbiting laboratory.

Dragon began its descent with a de-orbit burn at 2:28 p.m. EDT (1828 GMT), after departing the station at 9:29 a.m. EDT (1329 GMT) as both spacecraft sailed 255 miles (410 kilometers) above Burma. The station's crew used the outpost's robotic arm to release the spacecraft.

"It was nice while she was on board. We tamed her [and] took her home," space station commander Sunita Williams of NASA radioed Mission Control in Houston as the Dragon capsule departed. "Literally and figuratively, there are pieces of us on that spacecraft going home to Earth."

The Dragon capsule is returning hundreds of astronaut blood and urine samples from the space station amid the 1,673 pounds (758 kilograms) of experiments and gear loaded on board. Some of those samples have been waiting for more than a year. NASA's final space shuttle mission landed in July 2011, leaving the agency without a way to return big cargo deliveries to Earth until Dragon's flight.

[ Photos: Dragon's 1st Space Cargo Delivery ]

The spacecraft is expected to be retrieved by a SpaceX recovery crew so the cargo can be delivered to NASA. The mission is the first of 12 commercial resupply flights by SpaceX under a $1.6 billion deal with NASA.

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX (short for Space Exploration Technologies) launched the Dragon capsule toward the space station on Oct. 7 using one of the company's own Falcon 9 rockets and a pad at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The capsule was packed with 882 pounds (400 kg) of supplies to for the station, including 260 pounds (117 kg) of crew gear, 390 pounds (176 kg) of scientific equipment, 225 pounds (102 kg) of hardware and several pounds of other cargo, NASA officials said.

The cargo returning home on Dragon are 163 pounds (74 kg) of crew supplies, 866 pounds (392 kg) of scientific research and 518 pounds (235 kg) of other hardware, they added.  

SpaceX is the first robotic spacecraft ever to be capable of returning cargo to Earth.

"It has been an historic mission," NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said during undocking commentary.  

The unmanned cargo ships built by Russia, Japan and Europe are all designed for one-way trips and are intentionally destroyed during re-entry at the end of their missions. The Russian Soyuz capsules that ferry crews to and from the space station have limited cargo return capabilities, NASA scientists have said.

SpaceX was founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002 as a private spaceflight company. In May, the company launched its first Dragon capsule test flight to the space station to set the stage for this month's first cargo delivery flight. The next Dragon cargo mission is slated to launch in mid-January.

SpaceX is one of two companies with deals to launch cargo delivery flights on unmanned spacecraft for NASA. The other company, Virginia's Orbital Sciences Corp., has a $1.9 billion contract with the agency for at least eight missions to the station using the new Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft. The first Antares test flight is set for later this year.

With its space shuttle fleet retired, NASA is relying on the Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft to ferry U.S. supplies to and from the International Space Station. The space agency is also supporting the development of new commercial U.S. spacecraft to launch American astronauts on space station trips.

SpaceX is one of four companies currently developing manned private space taxis with NASA funding support. The company is upgrading its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsules to eventually launch crews of seven astronauts into orbit.

Visit SPACE.com today for complete coverage of SpaceX's Dragon capsule departure from the space station and return to Earth.

You can follow SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter@tariqjmalik and SPACE.com on Twitter@Spacedotcom. We're also onFacebook &Google+.

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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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