Private space capsule's maiden voyage ends with splash
A private US capsule that could soon be hauling cargo and even astronauts to the space station has splashed down after its maiden flight.
The Dragon ship launched from Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket at 1543GMT (1043 EST) on Wednesday.
The capsule separated about 10 minutes after launch, reaching its 300km-high orbit shortly after.
After completing several manoeuvres some 300km above Earth, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific.
Dragon and Falcon 9 are both products of California's SpaceX company.
The firm has a $1.6bn (£1bn) contract with the US space agency (Nasa) to provide 12 spacecraft with cargo capacity of at least 20 tonnes to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) through to 2016.
The initiative is part of a much wider American policy to place the carriage of freight and crew transport to the ISS in the hands of the private sector.
This was the first of three test outings intended to prove SpaceX's systems worked as designed. Dragon will not be allowed near the space station until it can be shown the capsule is safe.
Company and Nasa officials tried to play down expectations ahead of the mission, reminding the media that the complexity of space ventures often results in early mishaps as engineers get to grips with the new technologies.
"There's so much that can go wrong, and it all went right. We didn't even have to go to any backup systems at any point... I'm sort of in semi-shock," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said after the mission.
The vessel completed almost two orbits of the Earth while demonstrating its onboard systems.
A de-orbit burn brought Dragon back down through the atmosphere and a controlled splashdown via the assistance of three parachutes in ocean waters roughly 800km west of the coast of Mexico.
US President Barack Obama hopes the private sector can help fill the gap left by the retirement next year of the space shuttle fleet.
He envisages commercial ships ferrying supplies and astronauts to low-Earth orbit destinations like the ISS, while Nasa concentrates on developing a much more capable rocket and spaceship to venture out into the Solar System.
Dragon's demonstration flight has been organised under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (Cots) programme, which sees Nasa seed SpaceX with funds to help it deliver a serviceable system.
The company hopes to take Dragon to the space station next year. It says the capsule could be converted to carry a crew within three years of being given the task.
Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden applauded SpaceX's efforts.
"While rocket launches from the Cape are considered a common occurrence, the historic significance of today's achievement by SpaceX should not be lost," he said.
"This is the first in a new generation of commercial launch systems that will help provide vital support to the International Space Station and may one day carry astronauts into orbit. This successful demonstration flight is an important milestone in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama and Congress, and shows how government and industry can leverage expertise and resources to foster a new and vibrant space economy."