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Ship buzzes space station in test

The world's first private supply ship flew tantalisingly close to the International Space Station, successfully performing a critical test in advance of the actual docking.

The unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule flew within one and a half miles of the orbiting lab as it performed a practice lap and checkout of its communication and navigation systems.

Nasa and the SpaceX company declared the rendezvous a success and said the historic link-up was on track.

It is the first US vessel to visit the space station since Nasa's shuttles retired last summer - and the first private spacecraft to ever attempt a delivery. The Dragon is carrying 1,000lbs of provisions.

Thursday's accomplishment "is a big confidence boost. Everyone's very excited", said SpaceX mission director John Couluris. "It's exciting to be an American and part of putting American spacecraft into orbit, and we're very proud right now."

Nasa flight director Holly Ridings said the mood was upbeat on her side as well, but noted "there's still a lot of really new things that the teams need to perform and the vehicles, frankly, need to perform".

As the pre-dawn hours unfolded, the space station astronauts struggled with bad computer monitors and camera trouble as the Dragon zoomed towards them, but the problem did not hold up the operation. Indeed, all of the tests appeared to go well.

The astronauts successfully turned on Dragon's strobe light by remote control, but could not see it because of the sun glare and distance of several miles. The Dragon finally popped into camera view about 10 minutes later, appearing as a bright speck of light against the blackness of space, near the Earth's blue horizon. The two solar wings were clearly visible as the Dragon drew closer.

SpaceX's near-term objective is to help stockpile the space station, joining Russia, Europe and Japan in resupply duties. In three or four more years, however, the company run by the billionaire who co-founded PayPal, Elon Musk, hopes to be launching station astronauts.

It is the cornerstone of President Barack Obama's strategy for Nasa - turning over orbital flights to private business so the space agency can concentrate on destinations further afield, like asteroids and Mars. Several US companies are vying for the opportunity.

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