Soyuz TMA-17M and crew return home after five months on ISS
Three members of the Expedition 45 crew departed the International Space Station in their Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft on Dec. 11, landing a few hours later on the steppes of Kazakhstan in below-freezing, post sunset conditions. This was the first night landing of a Soyuz since TMA-05M in November 2012.
After spending some 141 days aboard the space station, Flight Engineers Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Oleg Kononenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) undocked from the orbiting outpost. They returned to terra firma in their spacecraft just over three and a half hours later at around 7:12 a.m. CST (13:12 GMT). The landing site was dark with light snowfall and winds gusting up to 64 miles (40 kilometers) per hour. Conditions were such that search and recovery crews were limited and extraction of the three from the capsule was expedited.
“Crew feeling fine,” said Kononenko as they descended on parachutes towards touchdown.
Kononenko, the Soyuz commander, completed his third spaceflight while Yui and Lindgren finished their first.
Hatches between the spacecraft and station officially closed at 12:32 a.m. CST (6:32 GMT) after the crew said their goodbyes. The three left behind Russian cosmonaut Sergey Volkov and year-long space flyers Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kononenko, a NASA astronaut and Russian cosmonaut respectively, all of whom will stay aboard the outpost until March before returning home.
After hatches were closed, the three inside donned their Sokol launch and entry suits in preparation for undocking and re-entry. After a leak check was conducted, the station reoriented itself to the proper position for detachment of the Soyuz from the Rassvet module. That separation occurred at 3:49 a.m. CST (9:19 GMT), officially marking the end of Expedition 45 and the start of Expedition 46.
At about 66 feet (20 meters) from the station, the first separation burn occurred. The spacecraft then did a roll maneuver to point its thrusters in the right direction for a second burn only 90 seconds later.
About two and a half hours after undocking and 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from the station, the crew commanded the Soyuz’s SKD engine to burn for 4 minutes and 40 seconds, slowing the spacecraft down by 420 feet (128 meters) per second, placing it on a path to intersect with the upper atmosphere. Just under 30 minutes later, the three modules of the Soyuz – the Orbital Module, the Descent Module and the Service Module – separated. Only the Descent Module with the crew returned to Earth safely, as planned.
Entry interfaced occurred about 22 minutes after the de-orbit burn at about 62 miles (100 kilometers) going 4.73 miles (7.62 kilometers) per second. Just under seven minutes later, after having slowed to 1.41 miles (2.28 kilometers) per second about 20.7 miles (33.4 kilometers) above Earth, the crew endured their maximum G load of 4.57 times the force of Earth’s gravity.
After nearly 10 minutes of controlled descent through the atmosphere, with a super-heated shroud of incandescent plasma growing around the capsule, the descent stage was finally going slow enough for the parachutes to deploy. That deployment finally came with the release of pilot chutes pulling out drogue chutes while the craft was just over 6 miles (10 kilometers) above the surface going 695 feet (212 meters) per second. This slowed the Soyuz down to only 262 feet (80 meters) per second before the main parachute deployed.
Under the main parachute, the speed slowed to about 21 feet (6.5 meters) per second. This slow descent lasted for just over 10 minutes while the spacecraft began preparing itself and its crew for touchdown. First, the heat shield was jettisoned, revealing the Soft Landing engines. Next, cabin pressure was equalized with the outside.
Finally, the seats the crew were sitting in, called Kazbek seats, moved up to prepare to absorb the shock from landing the three were about to endure. About one second before landing, the Soft Landing engines ignited, cushioning the final three feet (1 meter). Winds then blew the main parachute pulling the capsule to its side before the line connecting the spacecraft with the chute had been cut, as planned.
During the descent, the limited recovery team quickly located the capsule, which had a blinking beacon. Soon, the team, standing by in their helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, rushed to the landed spacecraft to quickly remove the crew. Once the space-flyers were removed, they underwent a preliminary health check before they were placed in nearby helicopters as the weather is too bad for a medical tent to be set up at the landing site for a more thorough medical evaluation. The crew was then flown to Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, where they parted ways to their respective space agency locations.
The next set of crew members to launch to the ISS will occur only four days later, on Dec. 15 at 5:03 a.m. CST (11:03 GMT), from nearby Baikonur Cosmodrome. That Soyuz, designated TMA-19M, will lift Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, NASA astronaut Timothy Kopra, and astronaut Timothy Peake, the first British citizen to be selected as an astronaut by the European Space Agency. They are expected to arrive at the outpost only six hours later to join the other three members of Expedition 46.
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. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.