SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship left the International Space Station early Tuesday and began a 5.5-hour trip back to Earth, with splashdown slated for 12:34 p.m. ET off the coast of Baja California.

The privately owned capsule arrived at the space station on March 3, loaded with supplies, spare parts and science experiments. Astronauts aboard the orbital outpost unpacked the gear and reloaded it with experiment samples, broken equipment and other items for return to Earth.

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Using the station’s robotic crane, astronauts latched on to the capsule and released it into orbit at 6:56 a.m. ET as the ships sailed 252 miles above the planet south of Australia.

“Sad to see the Dragon go,” astronaut Thomas Marshburn radioed to Mission Control in Houston as the capsule flew away.

“Performed her job beautifully. heading back to her lair. Wish her all the best for the splashdown today,” Marshburn added.

Dragon reached the station on March 3, a day later than originally planned due to a thruster pod problem that could have doomed the mission.

“I don’t want to go through that again. That was hard-core,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said during a keynote speech at the popular South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.

The cause of the problem remains under investigation, but engineers suspect a blocked pressurization line or a stuck valve was to blame.

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The flight was the second of 12 SpaceX  plans to fly for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract to deliver supplies to the station.

A second company hired by NASA is scheduled to test fly its new rocket, called Antares, in April.  The company, Orbital Sciences Corp., will be launching from a new complex on Wallops Island, Virginia.

Image: Dragon arrives at the space station on March 3 with more than 2,300 pounds of gear and supplies for the crew. Credit: NASA/CSA/Chris Hadfield