By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla (Reuters) - A Space Exploration Technologies Dragon cargo capsule sailed away from the International Space Station on Thursday and headed for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
The capsule arrived at the station on April 17 with more than 4,300 pounds (1,950 kg) of food, supplies and science experiments for the six-member crew.
It was repacked with more than 3,100 pounds of science samples and other equipment and released back into orbit at 7:04 a.m. EDT/1104 GMT on Thursday for a return trip to Earth, a NASA TV broadcast showed.
A parachute splashdown in the Pacific is expected at 12:42 p.m. EDT about 155 miles (249 km) southwest of Long Beach, California, NASA said.
The returning cargo includes roundworms that are part of a medical study to assess physiological changes that impact aging.
A second investigation looks at how the microgravity environment changes the worms’ muscle fibers, information that may provide insight into mitigating muscle loss in astronauts during long-duration flights.
SpaceX, as the privately owned company is known, is one of two firms hired by U.S. space agency NASA to fly cargo to the station following the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.
SpaceX, owned and run by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, made a test run to the station in May 2012 and is halfway through its original 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract with NASA.
NASA last year added three more flights to SpaceX’s agreement, for an undisclosed amount. SpaceX’s next launch to the station is slated for June 26.
NASA’s second supply line to the station is temporarily grounded, following a launch accident in October.
The contractor, Orbital ATK, is revamping its Antares rocket and hopes to be flying again in March. Meanwhile, it is buying a rocket ride for its next Cygnus cargo ship from United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, with launch targeted for late this year.
Russia and Japan also fly freighters to the station, though an accident, which remains under investigation, claimed the last Russian Progress capsule in April.
SpaceX is developing a version of the Dragon capsule to fly astronauts and expects to begin test flights next year.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Andrew Hay)