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Dragon on Course for Space Station Docking

The SpaceX Falcon 9 test rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
It has been a busy few days for the Dragon, the space capsule developed by the California-based company Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. Dragon blasted off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Tuesday, headed for the International Space Station.

John Couluris, a mission director at SpaceX, says Dragon has successfully performed a series of maneuvers in Earth's orbit.

"We performed the flyby at 2.5 kilometers below station. All Dragon's systems checked out. We look good. We're currently past station now preparing to fly up and over station overnight and prepare for berthing [Friday]," said Couluris Thursday, as he spoke to reporters at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston via video conference from SpaceX headquarters in California.

SpaceX and NASA officials say Dragon's thrusters enabled it to catch up to the space station, an orbiting outpost that speeds around the Earth at more than 32,000 kilometers per hour. They say the spacecraft demonstrated that its Global Positioning System is working properly and that it can, if necessary, abort its mission. The unmanned craft also demonstrated that it can float freely in orbit, as it will have to do Friday when astronauts aboard the International Space Station use the outpost's robotic arm to capture the cargo-filled capsule.

But it might be a strobe light in space that provided the brightest signal Thursday.

Dragon established a communications link with the space station, and astronauts aboard the ISS commanded the robotic spacecraft to turn on its lights.

"We saw that the strobes were indeed on, and then we continued operations, and then the crew, through the same panel, selected the strobes off," explained Couluris. "So, we have proven both that Dragon can already navigate within close proximity of the station and that the crew can command Dragon."

SpaceX and NASA officials alike say that they are excited about Dragon's performance so far, but they underscore that this is a test flight and the craft still has to perform tasks never before attempted.

The Dragon is carrying 544 kilograms of non-critical cargo, such as commemorative patches, clothing, meals and student experiments.

NASA has invested more than $380 million in SpaceX's commercial cargo capabilities. The U.S. space agency is looking to private companies to handle low-Earth orbit transportation so that NASA can focus on developing the next generation of deep-space vehicles.