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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Picture: Reuters

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has blasted off from Florida, launching the cargo-laden Dragon capsule towards the International Space Station for NASA's first privately run supply mission.

The SpaceX craft, carrying about 455kg of supplies, took off as scheduled today at 8.35am Perth time and is set to reach the orbiting space lab on Wednesday. There was also a personal touch: chocolate-vanilla swirl ice-cream tucked in a freezer for the three station residents.

It is the first of 12 planned missions in the US firm's $US1.6 billion ($1.58 billion) contract with NASA.

This was the second launch of a Dragon capsule to the orbiting lab by the California-based SpaceX company. The first was last spring. This was no test flight, however.

The company's unmanned Falcon rocket roared into the night sky right on time. The complex was soaring south-west of Tasmania when the Falcon took flight.

Officials declared the launch a success.

In more good news, a piece of space junk was no longer threatening the station, and NASA could focus entirely on the delivery mission.

NASA is counting on private business to restock the space station, now that the shuttles have retired to museums.
The space agency has a $US1.6 billion contract with SpaceX for 12 resupply missions.

Especially exciting for NASA is the fact that the Dragon will return twice as much cargo as it took up, including a stockpile of astronauts' blood and urine samples. The samples - nearly 500 of them - have been stashed in freezers since Atlantis made the last shuttle flight in July 2011.

The Dragon will spend nearly three weeks at the space station before being released and parachuting into the Pacific Ocean at the end of October. By then, the space station should be back up to a full crew of six.

None of the Russian, European or Japanese cargo ships can bring anything back; they're destroyed during re-entry. The Russian Soyuz crew capsules have limited room for anything besides people.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX - owned by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk - is working to convert its unmanned Dragon capsules into vessels that could carry astronauts to the space station in three years.

Other US companies also are vying to carry crews. Americans must ride Russian rockets to orbit in the meantime, for a steep price.

Musk, who monitored the launch from SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, called the capsules Dragon after the magical Puff to get back at critics who, a decade ago, considered his effort a fantasy. The name Falcon comes from the Millennium Falcon starship of "Star Wars" fame.

An estimated 2400 guests jammed the launching centre to see the Falcon, with its Dragon, come to life for SpaceX's first official, operational supply mission.

It was no apparition.

Media from around the world cover the launch of SpaceX Falcon 9. Picture: AP

"Just over a year since shuttle retirement, to be able to do that is, I think, what people are very excited about," said NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver.

Across the country at SpaceX headquarters, about 1000 employees watched via TV and webcast. SpaceX is shooting for its next supply run in January.

Another company looking to haul space station cargo, Virginia's Orbital Sciences Corp., hopes to launch a solo test flight in December and a demo mission to the station early next year.

The West Australian

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