The private Dragon space capsule is returning to Earth today (May 31), bringing its historic mission to the International Space Station to a close — and you can watch the spacecraft's homecoming online.
The unmanned Dragon spacecraft built by the California-based company SpaceX became the first private vehicle ever to dock with the space station when it arrived at the orbiting lab last week during a test flight for a planned series of 12 cargo missions for NASA. Now, nearly a week later, the capsule's mission is almost over.
Astronauts using the station's huge robotic arm will release Dragon from the $100 billion orbiting complex at 6:10 a.m. EDT (1010 GMT), according to SpaceX officials. The capsule will fire its thrusters one minute later in a departure burn.
At 10:51 a.m. EDT (1451 GMT), Dragon will execute a de-orbit burn, sending it down toward a fiery encounter with Earth's atmosphere. The capsule's drogue and main parachutes will deploy about 45 minutes later, and Dragon will splash down in the Pacific Ocean at 11:44 a.m. EDT (1544 GMT), a few hundred miles off the Southern California coast.
SpaceX personnel will be waiting in the area aboard boats, and they'll hoist Dragon onto a 185-foot (56-meter) ship for the trip back to shore. [SpaceX's Dragon Mission in Pictures]
NASA TV will show much of this action as it happens. Live coverage of Dragon's departure will begin at 3:30 a.m. EDT (0730 GMT) and continue until the release of the capsule from the space station more than 2 1/2 hours later.
The broadcast will resume at 10:15 a.m. EDT (1415 GMT) for de-orbit and splashdown coverage, NASA officials said, though the splashdown itself is unlikely to be captured on camera.
Finally, NASA TV will air a post-splashdown news briefing, held jointly from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT).
To watch, go to http://www.nasa.gov/ntv.
If everything goes according to plan, officials will likely declare Dragon's demonstration flight a complete success, clearing the way for the first bona fide cargo mission to launch this September. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide 12 Dragon flights to the space station, not counting this demonstration flight.
With the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet last year, the space agency is relying on private companies like SpaceX to provide new American vehicles for cargo and crewed flights to the International Space Station. Currently, NASA is dependent on international partners like Russia, Japan and Europe for crew and cargo launches.