A three-person crew commanded by humanity's most experienced space traveler is back on Earth today following a 400-kilometer descent from the International Space Station to the Kazakh steppe.
Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka wrapped up his 879th cumulative day in space, returning to Earth after his fifth spaceflight, which began with one-year crewmembers Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko in March. Padalka was accompanied home by Andreas Mogensen and Aidyn Aimbetov, who helped ferry a fresh Soyuz to the station last week. Trading places with Padalka aboard the ISS is Sergey Volkov, who will stay with Kelly and Kornienko until next year.
Yesterday's return to Earth began when the hatches between the station and Soyuz TMA-16M were closed at 2:17 p.m. EDT (18:17 UTC). The entire nine-person crew posed for photographs and video before Padalka, Mogensen and Aimbetov left:
Right on schedule, undocking occurred as the station crossed over Eastern Mongolia at 5:29 p.m. The Soyuz quickly became a speck against the blue-and-white backdrop of Earth, and Kelly captured the scene with a few photographs:
With the departure of the spacecraft from the station's aft Zvezda port, the current vehicle roster is:
- Soyuz TMA-17M: Rassvet nadir port
- Soyuz TMA-18M: Poisk nadir port
- Progress M-28M: Pirs nadir port
- HTV-5: Harmony nadir port
The Soyuz slammed into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere at about 8:30 p.m. Scott Kelly was again ready with his camera, and captured the vehicle's plasma trail as it blazed toward the ground:
Landing under the vehicle's reddish-orange-and-white striped parachutes occurred right on schedule at 8:51 p.m., when the Soyuz fired its retro-rockets to bring it in for touchdown:
The station's crew roster will remain at six until December, when Tim Kopra, Tim Peake and Yuri Malenchenko arrive to bring the laboratory's complement back to nine. Expedition 45's Kjell Lindgren, Kimiya Yui and Oleg Kononenko are scheduled to depart shortly thereafter.