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SpaceX, the private sector orbital launch firm started by PayPal hecamillionaire Elon Musk (also of Tesla Motors fame), has announced activation of comms kit aboard the International Space Station which will allow operations with the company's upcoming Dragon capsule.

The new equipment, known as the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Ultra High Frequency (UHF) Communication Unit, was taken up to the station by the space shuttle Atlantis last November. ISS astronauts began setting it up and testing it in January, and more tests took place this month.

“The success of this series of tests speaks to our close collaboration with NASA as well as the SpaceX process that allowed the rapid development of this new hardware,” said SpaceX ops chief Marco Villa. “Everything went smoothly, and we eagerly anticipate the upcoming Dragon visits to the ISS.”

SpaceX is currently ground-testing its new Falcon 9 rocket, intended to launch the Dragon into orbit. At present the firm has only flown the less powerful Falcon 1, intended for smaller payloads such as relatively light satellites.

NASA has awarded SpaceX a $1bn+ contract calling for delivery of supplies to the station using unmanned Falcon 9 launched Dragons beginnning next year. However, the firm says that the launcher and capsule have been "designed from the beginning to transport crew", and makes no secret of its aspiration to carry astronauts as well as cargoes.

NASA's own manned spaceflight plans are currently in disarray, with the shuttle fleet set for imminent retirement and the planned Ares/Orion systems - which were never fully funded by Congress - now cancelled outright by the Obama administration.

With the ISS soon to be entirely reliant on Russian Soyuz ships, commercial providers like SpaceX may well get the chance they've been begging for. ®

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