Soyuz MS-03 crew returns to Earth after nearly 200 days in space
Landing on the Kazakh Steppe, two members of the International Space Station’s (ISS) Expedition 51 crew returned to Earth on June 2, 2017, after spending 196 days in orbit. Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet landed in their Soyuz MS-03 capsule about an hour before sunset local time at 8:10 p.m. (10:10 a.m. EDT / 14:10 GMT).
The duo left behind Peggy Whitson, who launched with them back on Nov. 17, 2016. In April, she was granted a three-month mission extension.
Even though Whitson was commander of the space station for Expedition 51 and is staying aboard the ISS, she handed over the reigns of the outpost to Russian astronaut Fyodor Yurchikhin during a change of command ceremony on June 1.
Whitson will return to Earth with Yurchikhin and fellow astronaut Jack Fischer on Sept. 3, 2017, in Soyuz MS-04, which launched on April 20, 2017.
For the Soyuz MS-03 duo, the journey home started with the two entering their spacecraft and closing the hatches between it and the ISS. That occurred at about 3:31 a.m. EDT (07:31 GMT).
For the next several hours, crews on both sides performed leak checks to ensure the hatches were fully and completely sealed. Undocking occurred at 6:47 a.m. EDT (10:47 GMT), a moment that officially marked the start of the space station’s Expedition 52 increment.
The spacecraft was pushed away from the outpost at a rate of about 4 inches (10 centimeters) per second. That was increased to nearly five feet (1.5 meters) per second three minutes later when the Soyuz’s thrusters fired for about eight seconds. A second burn was performed about 90 seconds later for about 30 seconds to push the vehicle out of the station’s vicinity.
The Soyuz and its two-person crew continued to drift away from the outpost for several hours until it was at a distance of about 7.5 miles (12 kilometers).
At 9:17 a.m. EDT (13:17 GMT), the Soyuz’s SKD main engine performed a 4-minute, 37-second deorbit burn to slow the spacecraft by about 420 feet (128 meters) per second, just enough to dip into the atmosphere to allow drag to slow it down even more.
A few minutes before entry interface, the three modules of the Soyuz – the orbital module, the descent module, and the service module – separated in an event called tri-module separation. Only the descent module, which has the crew onboard, survives re-entry.
Entry interface occurred once the spacecraft was around 62 miles (100 kilometers) in altitude. Heat began building up around the spacecraft at this point as the friction of the atmosphere started slowing the Soyuz down.
Protected by a heat shield, temperatures around the vehicle increased to about 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,600 degrees Celsius). Rapidly slowing down, the crew endured around four times the force of Earth’s gravity for several minutes.
Once the Soyuz was slowed sufficiently and was deep enough into Earth’s atmosphere, a series of parachute deployments began, gradually slowing the spacecraft to the point where its main parachute could be opened.
At an altitude of 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers), the heat shield was jettisoned to expose the Soyuz’s soft landing engines. Those engines were used around 3 feet (1 meters) above the ground to momentarily “cushion” the impact. At the same time, the couches that the crew sat on moved up to prepare to absorb the shock of landing.
In all, the process of landing in a Soyuz has been described by previous flyers as going through a car crash.
Once on the ground, the Soyuz flipped onto its side, which sometimes happens, as the wind can catch a landed spacecraft’s’ parachutes and drag the whole vehicle. Once the chute was cut loose by pyrotechnics, however, the spacecraft came to a complete stop. While that occurred, helicopters, as well as search and rescue teams, arrived in the area to begin extracting the crew.
The first to be carried out of the capsule was Novitskiy, then Pesquet. They were both carried to couches for initial health checks and water. After that, they were carried to an inflatable medical tent for more checks and to change out of their landing suits.
Once everything was completed, the two space flyers were placed in a helicopter and flown to nearby Karaganda, Kazakhstan, where they went into separate planes to head to their respective space agencies.
Three people remain on the ISS. They will be joined in late July by the crew of Soyuz MS-05, which will include Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky, ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli, and NASA’s Randy Bresnik.
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity.