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SpaceX launch: A step-by-step guide (+video)

If all goes well on Saturday, SpaceX will launch the very first commercial visit to the International Space Station. Here is how the trip is expected to go.

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After completing the fly-under, Dragon will loop out in front, above and then behind the space station to position itself for docking.

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Step 6: Rendezvous

The next day, during Dragon's fourth day of flight, the spacecraft will fire its thrusters again to bring it within 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) of the space station. Once there, NASA's Mission Control team in Houston will run through a "go-no go" call to confirm all teams are ready for rendezvous. If everyone is "go," Dragon will inch closer, to about 820 feet (250 meters) away from the space station.

At this point, a series of final checkouts will be performed to make sure all of Dragon's location and navigation systems are accurate. If all looks good, Dragon's SpaceX control team on the ground will command the vehicle to approach the space station. When it reaches 720 feet (220 meters), the astronauts onboard the outpost will command the capsule to halt.

After another series of "go-no go" checks, Dragon will approach to 656 feet (200 meters), and then 98 feet (30 meters), and finally 32 feet (10 meters), the capture point.

Step 7: Docking

At this position, Mission Control will tell the space station crew they are "go" for capturing Dragon. NASA astronaut Don Pettit will use the station's robotic arm to reach out and grab Dragon, pulling it in to the bottom side of the lab's Harmony node, and then attaching it.

The next day, after more checkouts, the crew will open the hatch between Dragon and the station. Over the coming weeks, the astronauts will spend about 25 hours unpacking the 1,014 pounds (460 kilograms) of cargo that Dragon delivers. Though none of the cargo is critical (since this is a test flight), the capsule will arrive bearing food, water, clothing and supplies for the crew.

Step 8: Undocking

Dragon is due to spend about 18 days docked at the International Space Station. When it's time to let it go, the station astronauts will use the robotic arm to maneuver the capsule out to about 33 feet (10 meters) away, then release it. Dragon will then use its thrusters to fly a safe distance away from the laboratory.

Step 9: Re-entry

About four hours after departing the space station, Dragon will fire its engines to make what's called a de-orbit burn. This burn will set the capsule on a course for re-entry through Earth's atmosphere. The spacecraft is equipped with a heat shield to protect it from the fiery temperatures of its 7-minute re-entry flight.

Step 10: Landing

Dragon is due to splash down in the Pacific Ocean to end its mission. There, recovery crews will be waiting to collect the capsule about 250 miles (450 kilometers) off the West Coast of the United States.

You can follow SPACE.com assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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