Dragon was due to splash down today (Jan. 14) at 12:15 a.m. EST (0515 GMT), but the capsule returned a few minutes early, with SpaceX posting a confirmation of on Twitter at 12:12 a.m. EST (0512 GMT). The capsule had launched on Dec. 5.
"Farewell Dragon!," Expedition 58 astronaut David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency said on Twitter. "#Canadarm2 just released SpaceX-16 capsule, returning experiments to scientists around the World." [Video: Watch SpaceX's Dragon Depart the Space Station]
SpaceX has not yet stated whether the capsule was successfully brought back to port. This mission was the first SpaceX splashdown and recovery process to take place at night, according to a statement NASA posted during the capsule's 6-hour journey back to Earth.
The Dragon capsule was released robotically from the space station yesterday (Jan. 13) at 6:33 p.m. EST (2333 GMT), with NASA astronaut Anne McClain monitoring the procedure from inside the space station's cupola.
That maneuver was delayed, with the capsule's release originally scheduled for Jan. 10, then for about 3 hours earlier in the day yesterday. Both delays were caused by bad weather at Dragon's splashdown site in the Pacific Ocean. The capsule carries materials from science experiments that need to be analyzed sooner rather than later, according to NASA.
"The commercial cargo vessel is taking home a variety of critical space research that will immediately be picked up by NASA engineers and distributed to scientists across the nation," one NASA statement about the cargo return said. "Station hardware will also be extracted for analysis, refurbishment or discarding." [See launch photos for SpaceX's Dragon CRS-16 flight]
Farewell Dragon! #Canadarm2 just released SpaceX-16 capsule, returning experiments to scientists around the World.— David Saint-Jacques (@Astro_DavidS) January 14, 2019
Au revoir Dragon! Canadarm2 vient de relâcher la capsule SpaceX-16, qui rapporte des expériences à des scientifiques de partout à travers le monde. pic.twitter.com/3t3BlgIMCo
The capsule return comes as the International Space Station houses three astronauts, with the station still short-staffed after the failed launch of two astronauts on Oct. 11 of last year. The next trio of crewmembers — including those two astronauts, NASA's Nick Hague and Russia's Alexey Ovchinin, as well as rookie NASA astronaut Christina Hammock Koch — is currently scheduled to launch on Feb. 28. There are no cargo shipments currently scheduled to take place before then.