Following a 186-day stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS), American Tim Kopra, Brit Tim Peake, and Russian Yuri Malenchenko returned safety to Earth in the Soyuz TMA-19M capsule Saturday, landing in a remote part of Kazakhstan after a flawless journey from the ISS.
As the capsule edged away from the station on Saturday morning, space fans following their journey online were treated to some spectacular footage of the capsule with the moon forming a dramatic backdrop.
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) June 18, 2016
About an hour prior to touchdown, the real work to get Soyuz and its crew back to Earth began, with the capsule’s rockets firing for several minutes to put it on a trajectory to take it out of orbit.
A short while later, Soyuz reached what NASA calls “Entry Interface,” a point 400,000 feet above Earth where the thickening atmosphere creates friction on the exterior of the capsule, causing it to heat up significantly as it reaches speeds of up to 755 feet per second.
#SoyuzTMA19M entering our atmosphere and heating up to 1600°C in a ball of plasma – no radio contact possible. But all going as planned!
— ESA Operations (@esaoperations) June 18, 2016
An astronaut on an earlier mission described the rapid descent as “like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but the barrel is on fire.”
The fine weather allowed NASA photographer Bill Ingalls to grab some amazing shots of the Soyuz capsule as it descended through the clouds, bringing the space travelers safely back to terra firma.
An array of parachutes deploy during the last stage of the descent, the final one a massive 10,000 square feet in size. And to ensure the softest and safest landing possible, six small thrusters at the base of the capsule fired up in the final seconds.
Minutes later, waiting recovery teams retrieved the trio from the charred capsule, carrying them away on reclining chairs – standard procedure that gives the astronauts a chance to readjust to gravity while eliminating the possibility of accidents caused by feelings of disorientation.
Expedition 47 saw the completion of more than 250 experiments aboard the space station, many of them health related aimed at “helping prepare for human long-duration exploration while offering benefits to people on Earth,” NASA said.
Minutes after emerging from the capsule, Peake, the UK’s first-ever ISS visitor, said he was “elated” to be back, noting, “The smells on Earth are just so strong.”
And apparently having had enough of space food, the astronaut told reporters he was looking forward to pizza and a cold beer.
Peake stayed in touch with earthlings via his Twitter account and various live broadcasts during his six-month trip. Outside of his work aboard the station, Peake found the time to tweet beautiful shots of the blue planet and run the London marathon, as well as demonstrate how to make a coffee in space, and how to take a pee. However, things didn’t always go to plan, with the astronaut early on in his stay calling the wrong number when he tried to get in touch with his wife back home.