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SpaceX Dragon descent
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule descends toward the Pacific at the end of its parachutes. (Credit: SpaceX)

A month after delivering an expandable prototype habitat and other goodies to the International Space Station, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean today  with tons of equipment and scientific samples.

Among the roughly 3,700 pounds of cargo are freezers containing blood, saliva, urine and stool samples from astronaut Scott Kelly, who served as an experimental subject during a nearly yearlong stint on the station. Those samples will be studied to see how long-term spaceflight affected Kelly’s metabolic functions, including the function of the gut bacteria in his bowels.

The results could affect how NASA plans for even longer journeys to Mars and other deep-space destinations.

Astronauts used the space station’s arm to detach the uncrewed Dragon from its space station berth and send it on its way at 6:19 a.m. PT.

British astronaut Tim Peake told Mission Control that the “Dragon spacecraft has served us well, and it’s good to see it departing full of science, and we wish it a safe recovery back to planet Earth.”

After five hours of maneuvers, the truck-sized craft made its crucial plunge through the atmosphere and parachuted to a smooth splashdown at 11:55 a.m. PT in the Pacific, about 260 miles southwest of Long Beach, Calif. SpaceX said its recovery team reached the site and prepared the Dragon for its voyage on a ship heading back to Long Beach.

Time-sensitive cargo items will be offloaded in California, and then the Dragon is typically trucked back to SpaceX’s Texas facility for processing. Eventually, the company expects to refurbish and refly the capsules – just as it plans to reuse the Falcon 9 boosters that launch the Dragons.

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