Plummeting to Earth during a fiery atmospheric reentry within the cramped confines of their Russian Soyuz capsule, an international trio of space flyers returned safely to the Home Planet today, Dec. 11, for a rare nighttime landing, after departing the International Space Station (ISS) which had been their home in space for the past 141 days.
Expedition 45 crew members Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Oleg Kononenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency and Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) safely concluded their nearly 5 month mission aboard the massive orbiting lab complex with a soft landing on the frozen steppes of Kazakhstan at approximately 8:12 a.m. EST (7:12 p.m. Kazakhstan time).
The trio, led by Soyuz commander Kononenko, leave behind three more comrades from Russia and America who remain aboard the ISS until early March, including the first ever one year mission crew comprising Station Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos.
But the stations now diminished three-person staff – comprising of Kelly, Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos – will only operate the station alone for the next four days.
They will soon be supplemented by the remaining half of Expedition 46, comprising the three new crew members of NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency). They are slated to blastoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, on Dec. 15.
After a rapid 4 orbit, 6 hour rendezvous, Kopra, Malenchenko and Peake will dock their Soyuz capsule at the station. Peake is the first British astronaut to visit the ISS.
Kelly snapped several magnificent photos of the departing crew shortly after their Soyuz undocking (see above) and a vapor trail of the fiery descent (see below).
ISS Expedition 46 began at the moment of undocking of the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft from the station’s Russian Rassvet module at 4:49 a.m.
The crew touched down northeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan, marking the first crew landing to occur after sunset.
The landing sequence was covered live on NASA TV. But due to the poor snowy weather and occurring at night, the capsule and parachute were not visible during the descent, NASA commentator Rob Navias reported . Ultimately, high winds pulled the Soyuz onto its side – a common occurrence.
Russian recovery crews deftly plucked all three crewmates from the Soyuz, starting with Kononenko in the center seat, who was flanked on the right and left by Lindgren and Yui.
Bone chilling Kazakhstan lived up to its billing as the ground was covered in snow with temperatures only in the twenties Fahrenheit.
This touchdown of the Expedition 45 crew also counts as only the sixth nighttime Soyuz spacecraft return from the space station.
In another significant milestone during this increment, the ISS just celebrated 15 years of continuous human presence on Nov. 2, 2015.
The stations crews are conducting hundreds of science experiments during their stays aboard the ISS.
And Kelly and Kornienko are leading the way, lending their bodies for research into the long term effect of the weightlessness in space to enable NASA’s goal of a human ‘Journey to Mars’ during the 2030s.
The crews are participating in a wide array of research investigation including Earth observations, physical, biological and molecular science experiments to advance knowledge and demonstrate new technologies.
NASA hopes these investigations “enable research breakthroughs and drive technology innovations that provide benefits on Earth, and will enable long-duration human and robotic exploration missions into deep space.”
One of the most popular demonstration of new technologies, took place in August when Kelly, Lindgren and Yui took part in the Veggie plant growth experiment that yielded fresh lettuce for crew consumption. Future variations of Veggie may allow the crews to grow some of their own food on board the station as well as on long duration expeditions to Mars.
Upon the safe conclusion of this mission, Kononenko now has spent 533 days in space over 3 missions, pushing him up to 13th in the all time list of time spent in space. Lindgren and Yui were both rookie space flyers racking up a total of 141 days spent in space.
It’s been an extremely busy week for the space station crew, especially for Lindgren since he was in charge of grappling the newly arrived Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply ship barely two days ago on Wednesday morning, Dec. 9 – detailed here.
The Cygnus CRS-4 cargo freighter was launched on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on the fourth attempt, following three scrubs due to gloomy weather in the sunshine state.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.