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New US Spacecraft Splashes Down After Successful Test Mission

A new spacecraft that is intended to take U.S. astronauts back to the moon and beyond has returned from its test flight, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.

The unmanned spacecraft made two orbits of the Earth at an altitude more than 14 times higher than the International Space Station. After its four-and-a-half hour flight, Orion re-entered Earth's atmosphere at a speed of 32,000 kilometers an hour, its descent slowed at the end by three red-and-white striped parachutes. NASA called the clear weather "perfect conditions for Orion's homecoming."

The Orion capsule was originally scheduled to lift off Thursday from the Cape Canaveral launch complex in Florida but a variety of problems led to a delay. They included a faulty rocket valve, wind speeds and a boat that wandered into a restricted zone off the coast.

The U.S. space agency NASA says the first manned mission aboard Orion will not happen until at least 2021. Once it is fully operational, Orion will carry anywhere from four to six astronauts on deep space missions to the moon, an asteroid and eventually Mars.

The space agency is also developing a new rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, that will carry Orion.

Since the last space shuttle flight in 2011, U.S. astronauts have been transported to the ISS aboard Russia's Soyuz capsule. NASA has awarded contracts to two private companies, Boeing and Space X, to begin ferrying astronauts to the orbital outpost beginning in 2017.